How to get your foot in the door like an All-American.

I have a strong appreciation for student athletes. As a former track athlete at the University of Wisconsin I understand how hard it is just to earn an opportunity to participate in college athletics. I know how difficult it is to balance the demands of athletics and academics. And I know how well those demands prepare you for life after college. But I was reminded of this lesson again over the past year.

The W Letterwinners Club

A year ago I started attending W Club events at the University of Wisconsin. The W Club is the varsity athlete letter winners alumni club. If you won a varsity letter as a Badger you are automatically in the club. And if I were to rebrand the club, I would name it the W Letterwinners Club, so that the name would express in two words and one letter what it has taken me 2 sentences to explain.

Scott and Stephanie

The incoming club President, Stephanie Herbst-Lucke, and Vice President, Scott Brinen, asked me to join the W Club’s advisory board when I moved from Atlanta to Milwaukee. Because it is much easier to get involved in things centered in Madison when you live in Milwaukee than in Marietta, Miami or Mozambique.

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That’s me in the middle, sandwiched between Stephanie Herbst-Lucke and my college teammate Scott Brinen. Scott is the W Club VP. Stephanie is the P. (#snickering)

They Meet

At my first advisory board meeting in October of 2018, Stephanie introduced me to one of the representatives from the women’s track team named Sarah Disanza. Sarah was an All-American distance runner who had just graduated 5 months earlier. It was clear that Stephanie and Scott really liked this young woman and had invited her to join the advisory board right after graduation.

Badger Athlete Reunion

Following the W Club meeting we all migrated to a fun event the W Club hosts annually called the Badger Athlete Reunion. It was held at the most iconic of iconic Madison bars, State Street Brats. The event, as the name so aptly implies, is a reunion of all letter-winning athletes who ever attended the University of Wisconsin.

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After the party there’s the after party.

The Badger Athlete Reunion is athletically eclectic. Like the Badger’s version of Studio 54. Every sport is represented. Every era is represented. Female and Male athletes are represented. And it makes it clear that being a student athlete at Wisconsin prepares you for great things after graduation. Because the room was full of ass kickers and name takers. Not just athletically. But in business, and life.

Impressed

That evening I spent more time talking with Sarah Disanza and I was impressed. She seemed to fit right in with groups of former athletes who were 10, 20 and 30 years her senior.

The Suggestive Sell

A few months later Stephanie Herbst-Lucke contacted me and said, ‘I think you should consider hiring Sarah Disanza on your team at The Weaponry.’ The Weaponry is the advertising and idea agency I founded in 2016. Stephanie is a rockstar marketer herself, so I took her suggestion seriously.

Sarah

Sarah was the national runner up in cross country, and a 4 time All-American at Wisconsin. She was still training seriously and had been working at a great restaurant in Madison. But she had met her life quota for garlic smashing. And decided she wanted to start her real career.

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Sarah leading a gang of hungry Badgers to Mickies Dairy Bar for some giant pancakes and scramblers.

 

Talent Scouts

I asked Simon Harper, one of my talented account leaders, to meet with Sarah the next time he was in Madison. He did. And he liked her like everyone else does. So we invited her to come to Milwaukee to meet with our broader team. (Broader meaning diverse, not wide.)

Sarah came to our office a week later. She was on time. She was prepared. She asked great questions. Again, everyone liked her. But we didn’t have an obvious opening for her to fill. So we didn’t have an obvious next step forward.

The Surprise

Then Sarah did something that distinguished her from other talented people. Yes, she followed up. Which is always the right thing to do. (See How to impress others with a follow up note for how to crush the follow up letter.)

True Value

But what Sarah did went beyond manners, protocol and good form. She added value. When she followed up with me she noted an initiative I had mentioned during our conversation in my office. It was a research project that I wanted to undertake related to new business development.

WTF!?!

She shocked me when told me she did the project on her own! When she sent me the file containing her research work it was so good I told her that she had to charge us for her time, because it was truly valuable to us.

The Door Opens

I then invited Sarah to do some freelance work for us on another project for a major client. Sarah always showed up early, ready to roll. She took initiative. Displayed great people skills with our client. And she did such a great job we found ourselves looking for more places to get Sarah involved.

High Jumping

Sarah eagerly jumped at anything we offered. And I was convinced we should add this go-getter to our team full-time. But before we did, I wanted to do one last check on Sarah with someone who knew her as well as anyone: her college coach.

Jill Miller
Jill ‘The Coach’ Miller

Jill Miller

Jill Miller coached Sarah in both Track and Cross Country at The University of Wisconsin. I emailed her, asking if she would be willing to talk to me about Sarah. She enthusiastically agreed.

Jill and I had a fun conversation as we connected dots between the people and places we both knew (#DublinOhio #RachelWeber). Then the conversation turned to Sarah. Jill enthusiastically confirmed all of the great things we saw in Sarah. She talked about her work ethic, her punctuality, her sense of responsibility and accountability. She talked about Sarah’s great family and the strong character that clearly came from her parents, Paul and Debbie Disanza.

Just Do Grit

Jill told me that Sarah had the highest pain threshold of anyone she has ever coached. Which is a clear indicator of grit and determination. Which is valuable in every endeavor in life. I had heard enough. But Jill Miller (who I would like to nickname Jiller) had one more thought to add.

‘As a coach I often think about which of my athletes I would hire if I had my own business. I have had a lot of great athletes that I would gladly hire. But there are 2 that stand out as the first people I would hire. And Sarah is one of them.’  – Jill Miller

That was quite an endorsement. I told Jill how much I appreciated her time and insights. And I had all I needed to know.

The Offer

In August we offered Sarah a full time position with The Weaponry. She started the day after Labor Day. And she has been as good as advertised. Or better. She is eager. She is a fast learner. She asks great questions. And she has deftly handled everything we throw her way.

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Sarah and her new team of smiley Weapons.

Best of all, she is super fun, super funny, and has a great personality that really adds to our team. Which means that she is like so many badger athletes, past and present: Hard working, smart and determined. Yet as fun and full of personality as the kids who fail out of lesser colleges.

Taking Initiative

But the reason Sarah is on our team is that she took initiative. She spotted an opportunity during the interview process to wow us. She performed her own research that was highly valuable to our business. She built her own on-ramp. And she was so good we couldn’t ignore her. So we didn’t. Anyone can do this. Although very few will. Just those willing to perform like All-Americans.

Key Takeaway

If you want to get your foot in the door with a new employer, a new client or a new relationship, add value. Show how much you would bring to the table every day. Don’t wait to be asked. Show initiative. It will tip the scales in your favor. Those you are trying to impress won’t want to lose you as a valuable asset. They’ll make exceptions for you. Be patient, but persistent. And keeping adding value. You’ll find that doors will open for you over and over again.

*If you know someone who could benefit form this story, please share it with them.

How to impress others with a follow up note.

It’s important to surround yourself with great people. In business, as in life, the better the people around you, the better you become. That’s why I am always on the lookout for special people. I want to find rockstars with great experience that I can learn from. And I’m always searching for young guns who will turn heads when they kick in the swinging doors of the saloon. Like Emilio Estevez.

Scouts

I have talented people in my tribe who scout for people they think I should know. I regularly receive emails, texts and LinkedIn messages from friends and family about people they want to introduce me too. I love this. But this only happens because they know I am an avid collector of rockstars.

Stephanie Herbst-Lucke

One of my people scouts is my great friend Stephanie Herbst-Lucke. Stephanie is a fellow University of Wisconsin track alum (although she is not actually a fellow, she is a lady). She is also a very talented marketer, who now teaches at Georgia State University in Atlanta, while working on her PhD from Case Western. Stephanie recently connected me to one of her senior students at GSU that she was quite impressed with, and thought I should know. The student’s name is Erika Bevers.
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My friend Stephanie is a rockstar. Here she is (front left), with me (front middle) and a group of Wisconsin track alum at a get together at her house in Atlanta.

The Call

On Wednesday night I drove from Louisville (remember the I and S are silent) to my home in Milwaukee. Which is a 6.5 hour drive. During a fuel stop in Indiana I sent Erika a message saying that I was driving for the next few hours, and had time to talk. Erika called me within 10 minutes.
We talked about her career aspirations, strengths and passions. She asked me a lot of smart and insightful questions about my career path, and what I thought were the keys to success. (As if I would know…)
It was a fun conversation between an energetic student, excited to get her foot in the door of an advertising agency, and someone who remembers struggling to find a door to stick a foot in. That is until one of my college professors, Roger Rathke, introduced me to Paul Counsell, the CEO of Cramer Krasselt. And now, 2 decades later, I am the CEO of an ad agency, The Weaponry.  And now professors send me students, with feet, to stick in my doors.
I offered Erika advice and answered questions. She seemed to be paying attention. But you never really know, you know?

The Morning After

The following morning I got an email from Erika. Which is always a good move. But what I read was not just a good move. It was a textbook way to say I was paying attention throughout our conversation. It said that I picked up what you were putting down. That I am a quick study. And I would be a great addition to your team. All without literally saying any of those things.
I’ve attached her email below, reprinted with permission from Erika, who holds the copyright thereto.

The Follow Up Email


Hey Adam!
I want to thank you for the conversation we had yesterday– it was helpful, uplifting, and I learned a lot from your stories and advice. I’ve done my best to make an easy-to-follow outline of what we discussed. Feel free to let me know if I should go back and revise some points!
There are three things a person should remember if he/she wants to be successful:
1) Have a GROWTH mindset- Never stop trying to learn new things.
2) Surround yourself with good people. Learn from them.
3) Here’s the big one. Develop and MAINTAIN connections with people. It’s a small world and having that network is really important.
Here are some pointers on networking:
1) The secret to being able to talk to anybody in the room is to have a host-mentality​- that way, it doesn’t matter how shy or awkward the person may seem; you, as the host, will make sure the conversation flows.
2) Build LinkedIn Network to 300 by the time I graduate this December 2019.
3) Study market trends.
4) Get a Twitter! Not only is it full of useless drama, but it can be a great resource.
5) Informational Interviews are great- they’re casual, relaxed, and bit more “real.” Atlanta Creative Mornings is a great resource for this.
Some general bits that are very noteworthy and good to remember:
1) Get good sleep. Eat good food. Exercise. 
2) A B C D – ALWAYS BE COLLECTING DOTS TO ALWAYS BE CONNECTING DOTS!
I have attached a picture of my chicken-scratch notes just for the sake of entertainment. Again, I appreciate your time and insight. I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.
Hope you have a great weekend!
Best,
Erika
notes

Wow.

Not only was Erika listening, she was taking notes, asking clarifying questions, and going back go make sure that what she heard, and understood, was correct! This is a great way to make a great impression. And you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Advertising taught me that.

Key Takeaway

If you want opportunities that other people don’t get, do things that other people don’t do. Bring value to everyone around you. Make them want to pass your name along to others. Then be as good as advertised. Make a great first impression. Make your strengths, passions and contributions obvious. It will open doors for you. And opened doors mean more chances to learn, earn and grow. Then follow up. Thank the people that have helped you move forward. By doing so you’ll develop a reputation that will open doors you didn’t even know existed.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them.