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.

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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 make a business trip more than a business trip.

I like to make the most of my business travel. After my work obligations are Sharpied into my calendar, I always fill the open spaces in my schedule with personal activites. That might include eating at an interesting restaurant, exploring, museuming or exercising. But my favorite activity to add to a work trip, by far, is socializing. Sometimes I meet new people. Sometimes I reconnecting with old friends. And sometimes I do both at the same time.

This Week

I had to travel to Atlanta this week for a film shoot. Since I had to fly in on Monday I began filling my afternoon with interesting activities. Here is what I did between 12:30 and 6:30pm:

  1. Had lunch with a former client
  2. Had back-to-back-to-back meetings with 3 different freelancers who are currently working with my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry.
  3. Met with a college senior to talk to him about his career options after he graduates.
  4. Guest lectured to a college marketing class about creativity and the creative process.
  5. Stuck around 20 minutes after the lecture to talk to a group of 5 students who had more questions.
  6. Drove to my Atlanta neighborhood in East Cobb and talked to my neighbor, Dr. Betty Garrot about my recent trip to India (Betty’s family is from India, and they contacted me when I was in Bangalore).

Monday Night

It was a fun and interesting day. But what I had planned for Monday evening was really special. Last Friday I texted my college teammate Jabari Pride, who lives in Atlanta, and asked him if he would like to get together Monday night. He said yes. So I reached out to another, former University of Wisconsin track athlete, Lenton Herring, who lives in Atlanta, and invited him too. Then I reached out to Stephanie Herbst-Lucke, who was not only up for getting together, she invited us to gather at her home. So we decided to contact a couple more former Badger track athletes to tell them what we were doing.

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Jabari, Adam and Lenton. One fo these guys is allergic to shoes.

Just three days later, on a rainy Monday night in Atlanta, these are the Badger track alum who showed up:

  1. Adam Abrecht: Discus and hammer thrower from Norwich Vermont, now living in Milwaukee (but still a proud Atlanta home owner).
  2. Jabari Pride: Sprinter and all-around athlete from Los Angeles, now living in Atlanta.
  3. Lenton Herring: Jumper and sprinter from Gainesville Florida, now living in Atlanta.
  4. Stephanie Herbst-Lucke: Distance runner from Chaska, Minnesota, now living in Atlanta.
  5. Tina Erps-McGee: Sprinter and jumper from Bettendorf Iowa, now living in Atlanta.
  6. Terry Reese: Hurdler from Fort Wayne Indiana, now living in Atlanta.
  7. Scott Jenkins: Distance runner from Kenosha, Wisconsin, now living in Atlanta.
  8. Stephanie (Bassett) Orman: Distance runner from Bloomington, Indiana now living in Atlanta.
  9. Mark Euler: Jumper from Madison, Wisconsin, now living in Atlanta.
  10. Reed Connor: Distance Runner from The Woodlands, Texas, now living in Atlanta.
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Tina, Stephanie and Steph, between two lamps.

Socializing not Social Networking

It was an amazing night. I got to see friends and teammates I have known for decades, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. I also got to meet three new Badgers. We talked about our families and careers. We shared stories about our days competing for the University of Wisconsin. We talked about our coaches and the things we learned from Ed Nuttycombe, Peter Tegen, Martin Smith, Mark Napier, Scott Bennett, Mick Byrne, Mary Grinaker, Robert Hackett and others.

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Lenton telling us the story of how he invented the fist bump.

We talked about how there is no other experience quite like spending your college career in Madison. We talked about the unique people, the unique setting and the unique educational environment. Because of our shared history, the group instantly felt like a community. We traded contact information and made plans to gather again. Just like that, the W Club-Atlanta was born.

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The W-Club Atlanta, freshly birthed.  

Connect In Person

This was a great reminder to make sure you see your people in real life. It is great to keep in touch with each other on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. But people are better in person. We all need to experience real human connections. Those connections are strongest, and most impactful, when we are in a room, talking to each other, face to face.

Key Takeaway

I encourage you to reach out to your people. Get together with friends from home, from college or camp. Organize a gathering of former co-workers, teammates or roommates. Get together with your neighbors. Or create your own social or professional groups.

At the end of our days, the only thing that will really matter is the relationships we build, and the impact we have on each other. Don’t be afraid to make the first move. I did. And because of it, ten former Badger track athletes are now part of another special community 803 miles from Madison.

*Special thanks to fellow Badger, James Lucke for hosting us and joining us Monday evening! On Wisconsin!