What to Look for When Hiring a Product Manager

Screenshot 2016-02-10 08.05.23

Product managers can make or break organizations, which is why hiring managers must spend time landing the most talented PMs. Great hires help their companies level-up.

So, what exactly should you look for in a PM?

When I’m hiring, I look for candidates who are what I call “smart chameleons.”

These people immediately impact a particular product. They adapt quickly and efficiently whenever new ideas or initiatives emerge.

To this end, a candidate’s experience—alongside examples that demonstrate his or her ability to adapt—are the key qualifications that I explore during the interview process.

No One is Born a PM

A master blacksmith teaches an apprentice how to shape metals. Similarly, PMs need to get their hands dirty while on the job to learn their craft.

At Fuze, we typically hire PMs with at least three years of experience. It’s great when that experience comes from places known for producing great PMs, like big software companies that have established PM disciplines and training programs. Amazing PMs can also come from medium-sized tech firms and often have very cool and interesting backgrounds that led them to Product Management.

Some of the best Product Managers I’ve worked with have the most amazingly diverse backgrounds: an art history major, a finance manager, and once even an astrophysicist. You can also often find great PMs inside of Sales and Sales Engineering teams; they often have amazing customer empathy given the amount of interactions they have with them.

I also seek candidates with relevant domain experience to our industry and technology. It simplifies the onboarding process when new hires have a basic understanding of our tech, B2B sales, and enterprise platforms from the beginning.  

Adaptability

Anyone who’s worked in the startup world knows how quickly things change. PMs need to be versatile enough to keep pace with those changes.

During the hiring process, I ask candidates to provide examples about how they’ve shipped their products. More specifically, I ask candidates to describe times when they had to get creative to ship something. Maybe they had to deal with missing information. Maybe there was no existing process. Maybe they were competing for resources.

Whatever the case may be, the more creative the candidate’s response, the more likely we are to proceed to the next round of interviews.

Great PMs Empathize with Customers

Those who know me have heard me talk about how important customer empathy is for a PM. Let’s reiterate.

When I’m hiring, I look for candidates who have extensive experience talking to customers. I seek out people who can provide examples of turning those interactions into products and feature improvements.

Empathy is one of the most important skills for anyone in any industry. Candidates who can place themselves in their customers’ shoes and see problems (and solutions) from their perspectives tend to succeed in PM roles.

Communication Skills are Critical

If candidates can’t communicate effectively, how can you expect them to ship on time?

One part of our Fuze interview process involves homework. We give candidates an assignment and ask them to present their response to us. Topics change periodically, but they always focus on a real business challenge that we’re facing.

Forcing candidates to prepare presentations in a relatively short period of time is a great way to ascertain how well they think on their feet and whether they can communicate content clearly and concisely.

Thanks to this component of our interview process, we can gauge whether candidates have the communication skills that are necessary to thrive.

Although different candidates appeal to different companies, strong PMs will be experienced and quick on their feet. They are empathetic and communicative. Keep this in mind and with luck you’ll make amazing new hires.

For more on the topic, check out Steven Sinofsky’s post on hiring your first PM.

 

Why Face-to-Face Meetings Are Essential For Distributed Teams

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Image by Flickr user heisenbergmedia

It’s easy (but wrong) to avoid in-person meetings.

It’s especially easy if you work in remote teams and don’t have all of your coworkers or peers nearby. While it’s expensive and logistically difficult to bring distributed teams together, you need to.

There are serious benefits to in-person communication. I believe it’s the only way to align your team with your business’ strategic objectives. It’s also the best way for your team members to feel connected with one another.

Our Product and Engineering organizations at ThinkingPhones is spread across four different cities. Here’s how, when, and why we bake physical meetings into our team’s schedule.

Start with Video

To bridge the physical gap with our coworkers, we use video conferencing. It’s the only acceptable alternative to meeting face-to-face.

Video makes remote working way more efficient than just using texting or a conference call. Effective, to us, is a measurable reduction of time in meetings and increased engagement in the actual meeting content. Video helps us do both those things.

We use Fuze, a video collaboration product of ours. I use it for 90% of my remote meetings.

If your teams are spread out, make video meetings a requirement.

Get on the Calendar

Put scheduled meetings into a calendar so all participants don’t miss or forget anything. It sounds simple, but it makes a difference.

My directors and I get together every four weeks for a leadership meeting. We do it in-person and rotate which office hosts the meeting. Besides getting together, we also prepare. We keep a rolling agenda in a Google Doc. If we have something new to brainstorm, we add it.

By sharing an ever-evolving agenda, we get important items out of our email and in front of our team. It’s reduced my stress levels a lot.

Now, we’re experimenting with something new: Breather spaces. Vacating the office lets us physically and emotionally leave our day-to-day issues behind to focus on the tasks at hand.

Kickoff New Products in Person

Whenever we’re about to start a new product development effort, I ask myself a question: is it worth it to get together all the key stakeholders? For the big projects, definitely.

Two days of working on a whiteboard side-by-side will replace weeks of struggle. It’s a lot easier to align on design principles and key technical decisions when you can hash out minute details with your colleagues in the room.

Meet Customers

When I travel to our different offices, I try to squeeze in one or two customer house calls. It might cost me an extra day, but meeting with them is far too important. Catching up on the phone won’t substitute.

Budget for It

We’ve already walked through why it’s necessary to get together. You need to plan if you want those meetings to happen. Flights, hotels, and Uber rides cost money. It adds up quickly. Figure out how much money you’ll need, set it aside, and maximize those trips.

If you don’t budget these costs, you’ll never have the opportunity to meet with your colleagues in the flesh.

Face-to-face meetings allow your distributed teams to really connect. If you care about business results or team chemistry, then you must plan for it.

Morphing Your Management Style To Drive A Growing Product Team

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Image by DeviantArt user JR19759

A great outcome of any hiring strategy is when it works. You’re pulling in amazing people and they’re growing and supporting each other to build a great product organization.

That’s the world I’ve been living in over the last several months. Our product team at ThinkingPhones has literally tripled in size over the last year.

Given all we’ve learned during this hyper-growth period, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the best practices and processes we’ve implemented during that time.

So let’s start with the most important step:

The “Gravity Hire”

I use what I call the “gravity hire” methodology to build product teams quickly. This means that my early hires are product rockstars that will be able to attract other amazing PMs. And then I have them spend 50% of their time hiring other rockstars.

As the team forms – and then grows – it becomes critical to open up new internal and external communication processes to keep everyone marching in the same direction.

Here are some of the specific methods we’ve used successfully…

Product “All Hands” With An Open Mic

When you’re hiring so many talented people in a short period of time, it can be challenging to make sure all of them feel like they own a mission-critical part of the product portfolio.

Enter the Product “All Hands” meeting.

It’s held for 30 minutes once a week. Everyone in the Product Team joins and we have just two agenda items:

  • I share info about the company as a whole and take questions.
  • There’s an Open Mic portion where anyone can “virtually” stand up and share information or ideas.

The meeting puts my team on the same page regarding:

  • Exactly what is going on in the company
  • What deadlines are pending
  • Roles and goals across the team
  • How the team can help each other achieve or exceed those goals

Cross Team Lunch And Learns

We do frequent “Lunch and Learns” at ThinkingPhones, so my team and other teams can show each other what they have achieved in an informal environment.

For instance, our international sales leadership recently gave an update on our business outside of the US over sandwiches and soda. This was great for my team because it provided additional context for upcoming product roadmapping and prioritization decisions.

These sessions help my team, and other teams within the company, feel more connected with the mothership – and also ensure everyone sees how their work is impacting other areas of the company.

1-on-1

All of the directors in my organization have weekly 1:1’s with their team, and I personally do skip-level 1:1s every other week with individual product managers. They are an incredible management and motivation tool if used properly (Ben Horowitz’s post on 1:1’s has some excellent tips on the subject).

Regardless of how you run your 1:1’s make sure you use it as a forum for the employee to say what they want or need to say. It is not a meeting to pass judgement or evaluate performance.

Managers get to know the more junior employees and the areas they work in, find out what’s working and what’s not in the company, and learn how to do their own job better.

Employees and junior managers have a chance to voice any concerns or worries, they get to know the senior managers, and feel valued as a result.

Measure PM / Customer Contact

In a rapidly growing product team, individual contributor PMs often get buried in the details of building and shipping. And this leaves them little time to engage with customers.

So consider measuring each of your Product Managers on how much in-person time they’re spending with customers on a weekly or monthly basis.

The feedback they’ll take back into the organization from those touch points will be pure gold for your product team and for the rest of your company.

Connecting is Key

The more informed your PMs are about what their colleagues and customers are doing, the better product you’ll build. It really is that simple.

How are you managing your product teams to scale up as your company grows?

Let me know your best practices in the comments below.

How Teaching Tech Can Make You a Better Innovator and Leader

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This past summer I decided to teach a part-time course at General Assembly.

I love mentoring and coaching others, and public speaking, so I wasn’t surprised to realize how rewarding and fun teaching can be.

But what I didn’t expect was how much this new experience would teach me about leadership and innovation.

Being Prepared Really Helps

When I first started teaching, I thought I could quickly throw together my lesson plans the day before class.

Boy, was I wrong.

I needed three to four hours to prepare for each class, even though I already knew the content. I had to develop the primary lesson content, supporting personal stories, plus extra alternative points in case the other content didn’t land well.

Takeaway: This preparation style is equally useful for training and teaching your team outside the classroom.

Now when I prepare a meeting or workshop with my team, I think about:

  • weaving a story that team members can connect and relate to
  • knowing alternative paths ahead of time
  • having facts and personal stories on hand as examples

My favorite feedback from my students was when they told me: “Michael seems so well prepared to help us understand each lesson.”

You should strive to have your team feel that way about you as a leader.

Check for Understanding to Avoid Mistakes

You can give hours of lectures with supporting examples, but there is no guarantee that your listeners have understood and absorbed the information given to them.

The students at General Assembly had to comprehend each topic if they were going to have a shot at completing their projects.

I learned to check for that comprehension.

The best way to do this was to frequently ask questions during my lectures, get students to verbally fill in the blanks, and just outright ask if anyone needs further clarification on a topic.

Takeaway: To effectively and efficiently convey information when training or instructing your team, you have to make sure your team members understand what you are asking them to do by actively confirming that understanding.

When I’m training my team, here’s what I do:

  • regularly ask questions to see whether what I’m saying makes sense to them
  • use prepared alternative points to back up and reinforce content if there is a lack of understanding
  • make sure they get the nuances of the topic

Investing this time up front will save you more time and avoid mistakes in the long run.

Teaching by Example: Clarify Expectations

One way I teach students is through the “I Do, We Do, You Do” framework.

The idea is:

  • You (the teacher) show the students how to perform a specific task
  • You perform that same task with the students’ participation
  • You ask the students to perform the task on their own

I’ve found this method works brilliantly for both simple and complex topics in the classroom – like our lesson on calculating the Lifetime Value (LTV) of a customer.

Takeaway: This is an effective way to teach new concepts, processes, or frameworks to your team. It ensures team members know exactly what you expect of them.

To make this model work at ThinkingPhones, I encourage all of the managers on my team, myself included, to routinely “get into the trenches” and do the work our product managers do – build a competitive deck, write PRDs, or do market analysis.

This gives all our managers the tools and skills to use the I, We, You model, so we can train and get new product managers up to speed.

How This Applies to Innovation

Overall, teaching reinforces the importance of communicating effectively to your team through:

  • being more prepared than you think you need to be
  • actively checking to make sure your team members understand what they need to do
  • demonstrating tasks so your team members know what is expected of them

Do this well and less time will be spend on re-explaining concepts, or rectifying problems.

Then, when your team is performing their jobs efficiently, and without mistakes, you’ll have more room and time for innovation.

4 Things Every Product Person Should Do

Image by Flickr user 42614915@N00

Image by Flickr user 42614915@N00

It would be a shame if growing in your career took you further away from having an up-to-date perspective of what’s happening with your product.

You can quickly forget what life is like in the trenches. If you want to be an effective product manager, you need to actually work on the product. Some people estimate you should spend 30% of your time with hands-on work in engineering roles.

I would suggest that it’s paramount for product managers of all levels to be do-ers.

It’s crucial for managers in the Product space to:

  • Get out of meetings
  • Walk away from product roadmaps and strategy
  • And lead by example by consistently getting into the weeds

How to get your hands dirty

Write a Spec

Product Requirement Documents drive the efforts of the entire product team. Its hard to come by a more important, higher leverage piece of work for a company. Every quarter I make sure to take one project or feature and write the entire PRD and spec for it.

This includes writing up wireframes, mockups, business case, scenarios, technical discussion, and timeline. I also put it through the same process  my PM’s need to go through: review, iterations, sign-off, etc.

Teardown a Competitor

When I see a competitor that seems interesting or a technology that could be useful to our products, I will spend an hour on a Friday performing a teardown.

A good teardown will involve – where possible – getting hands on time with the tech or product in question, taking relevant screenshots, and writing up evaluative feedback. I then provide some ideas about how we can either beat the competitor or, failing that, integrate with them. I post these ideas into our wiki and share with the team. 

Triage Bugs

About once a week I will jump into JIRA, pick a product, and review the Priority 1 and 2 bugs. Do they match my expectation of priority? Great. If there are any questions, I will sit down with the individual PM and ask them about it.

Attend Individual Scrums

There are too many projects on my team to go to every scrum, so instead I pick one day each week to attend a different product’s meeting. I usually sit and listen quietly, then afterward will use my one-on-one with that PM to ask questions about what I heard. Theres a lot you can tell about a team just by occasionally showing up to their daily standup.

Why would you do this?

Respect

Students in my Product Management class at General Assembly this semester heard me start every lesson with some form of “This stuff is so cool! I love building products.” One of the first things I look for when hiring PM’s is their raw passion for wanting to build cool stuff.

Doing individual work like this shows your team, your peers, and your management that you are fired up about building products. You’ll earn their respect, which can be especially helpful when onboarding into a new team.

Improved efficiency

The first time you write a spec as a newly promoted manager (especially if you haven’t written one in a while), youll instantly discover what in the spec process needs improvement. Fixing these issues will make your entire team more efficient.

On our team, I realized that we had four different flavors of PRDs. I worked with Alex (one of our Directors of Product Management) to unify them into a single format. We then came up with a template for the new PRDs and put it into our wiki. That’s the spec process we use on all of our products today.

A Dose of Realism

It’s easy to think projects and products will execute extraordinarily well. As a manager in the Product organization, your goal is to balance your optimism for completing a project against your pessimism, your previous experience telling you how complex it is going to be.

Periodically writing a spec, attending a scrum, and triaging bugs can help you stay much closer to what’s actually happening inside your products and code.

Spend your time wisely.

Which will be more expensive: time spent on non-managerial work, or the risk of failure stemming from a knowledge gap between strategy and execution?

Back From Hiatus (a.k.a Being Flexible)

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When I am very passionate about something I find it hard to stop doing it, whether that being playing soccer in my Brooklyn Bridge Park league or mentoring startups here in NYC. Writing is one of those areas of passion for me and it’s why I really enjoy writing on my blog. I find it’s a great way to share concepts and ideas, and I love the feedback that I get from readers of all different industries and backgrounds.

I’ve talked in several previous posts about how I manage my time, like using “GSD” blocks on my calendar during the day or capturing early-morning time to blog and read the news. I also believe that you need to be flexible with you whatever systems you use for your personal productivity. The list of things you need to accomplish and the list of things your passionate about have to actually “fit” into your available time.

Earlier in my career I found I would get super stressed out when a significant change in my life threw a wrench in my personal productivity. I’m talking things like promotions, new jobs, giant new projects, or even new relationships. I would have to “change” my perfect email system or alter my by-the-minute fixed morning routine. Over time I’ve realized that the true productivity ninja is someone who can recognize when a big enough wrench is thrown into system and then react accordingly.

At the beginning of the summer I took a new role inside of ThinkingPhones that made my responsibility and scope grow by what felt like 100x. I also took on an Instructor position at General Assembly (more on that soon) that added four hours of class and six hours of prep time per week to my schedule. This had the predictable effect of disrupting my time management system almost immediately.

What changed? On the work front, my new role caused me to have to learn and be responsible for a much larger portion of our product portfolio and in parallel increased the amount of people on my team. My need for time to just read material on my own and also the time needed to hire and coach increased several fold. Teaching was an incredible experience, but there I quickly realized that to effectively prepare my lessons for class I needed to spend significant time on the weekends creating the core material and then a few hours the morning of each class rehearsing.

Something had to give. I looked at my tasks and my calendar and realized that the time I spent writing and curating was about what I needed to prep for class. So I decided to take a break from writing and use that time to tackle my new role at work and my class at GA. It was stressful in the short term because I missed writing and don’t like stopping things I enjoy doing, but that feeling quickly switched to relief as the amount of effort I needed for both work and GA increased over the summer.

I’ve been looking forward to writing again and I’m glad I had this London-bound-no-internet-trans-atlantic flight to write this post and get back at it. Talk to you all soon.

Thanks!
-m

How To Improve Your Networking With Goal Setting (Video)

It was a blast to work with the folks at SkilledUp to put together this fun video on how to network more effectively using goal setting and a little bit of a system. Big kudos to my extremely talented movie-producing-and-entrepreneur-extraordinaire friend Rich Boehmcke for shooting, editing, and producing this video!

The original video on SkilledUp is here.

A Product Manager Should Be The Most Curious Person In The Room

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image (C) Tauntaunwampa

I was talking earlier this week with a new product manager on my team. It was our 1:1 and we were discussing his latest project. It’s the first big product area that this PM has taken on and it’s very important for our next release, so we were using our conversation to make sure everything was on-track. I was peppering him with questions after he shared his update:

“How do you feel the project is going?”
“What challenges have you hit working with your feature team?”
“Is the spec ready for review?”
“Okay, can you show me the diagram for the main use case that you’re stuck on?”
“What about this part of the lookup, can we also double-back with the phone number?”
“I just thought of these two uses cases, have you considered them?”
“What’s left between now and the spec review?”

Later that same day I was in a feature team meeting discussing the status of a new product offering. The lead developer was sharing his detailed update, which included a few specific areas that had risk and ambiguity.

“Why did you choose that implementation path?”
“Will this scale if we 10x the amount of users in a year?”
“Is there a faster way to do it?”
“What if we added more resources?”
“What are the biggest remaining risks?”

Folks who have worked with me before know that I love to ask questions. A lot of questions. 🙂 The questions I asked during the 1:1 with my PM (and their resulting answers) helped me quickly understand the status of the project and where he was blocked. It also set the stage for the type of information I’d want to hear in the next update I get about the project. He and I then spent a few minutes talking about questions, curiosity, and why they’re both so important for Product Managers to be effective in their careers.

Awesome Product Managers have an unrelenting sense of curiosity. They’re equally curious about the latest competitive apps, their own project statuses, industry news, how a piece of backend technology works, the reason a bug occurred, or why a partner team is late on delivering. A great PM should use precision questioning to drill into every conversation and problem to understand what is really going on and what they can do to move things forward. This can reveal gaps in use cases, technical knowledge, or even a partnership agreement that need to be addressed.

Checking for curiosity is critically important when evaluating a PM for a role on your team. Many parts of my PM interview process, from the “What’s your favorite app?” question all the way through the product design case study, are used to see how curious the candidate is. Do they start out the case study by immediately jumping into a solution on the whiteboard based on something they know, or do they open with a set of questions back to me to help understand what they don’t know.

Ultimately your use of precision questioning as a PM must be balanced with the amount of investigation and discovery you do on your own. You will also gain a lot of experience over time simply from being in more and more product cycles.

The simplest way I can frame this advice? Don’t wait if you’re curious about why something is. Get curious and ask the question.

How I Grew My Network By 142 People Last Month

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I’ve always loved meeting new people. My mother will recall that when I was a child I would walk around the play area at my kindergarten school, offering up whatever toy I had in my hand to other kids in an attempt to get them to share and play with me back. It’s been 30 years of meeting new people since those days back in kindergarten, and I can honestly trace all of the internships and jobs I’ve ever had directly back to a specific person in my network. I actually share the story of those connections during a talk I give annually to my old high school, “Shaking Hands: How I Networked My Way To A Career I Love”.

I also love using systems and processes to help make my work and life more productive. Over the years I have evolved the way I network to try and make it as efficient and fun as possible. A friend recently asked me how many new people I met last month, and I think I startled him when I said very quickly and specifically “142”. Yes, I track how many new people I meet each month, thanks to a few tags in LinkedIn and, of course, a process. 🙂

Here’s the thing, though: you don’t have to be an extreme social extrovert to grow and benefit from a great network. I believe with a little process, a few funny nametags, and a touch confidence, anyone can grow a great network.

I believe there are three parts to building and nurturing a great network:

  1. Set goals.
  2. Make a plan, get prepared.
  3. Be diligent, follow-up.

1. Set Goals

What are you networking for? Having crisp goals makes it so that you maximize the time and effort you spend growing your network. It’s okay to have multiple goals, but don’t have too many or you will lose focus. These goals will then help you plan out the content, people, and events you need to be most effective. My current networking goals are:

  1. Hire a new Product Manager at ThinkingPhones.
  2. Find new business partners for a specific product at ThinkingPhones.
  3. Find new business partners for Perspyre.
  4. Grow my network in the NYC startup community.

For each of my goals, I write down a 2-sentence “opener” that I can use when talking to someone about them. For my goal of hiring a new PM at ThinkingPhones, I use:

“I’m looking to hire a PM with five or more years of experience to join our NYC team and focus on building our new UC and big data clients. I’d ideally like them to have experience building mobile apps and working with remote teams.”

Now whenever I bump into someone at an event I have these quickly queued up in my head and ready to go.

2. Make A Plan, Get Prepared

Once I’ve set my goals for the quarter I then create an action plan to actually get me in front of the people that I need to meet. I have been using this plan for my “Grow my network in the NYC startup community” goal:

  1. Attend 2-3 Meetups each month.
  2. Connect with 5 new people at any Meetup or event I go to.
  3. Have coffee with one new person from the NYC startup community each week.

As part of my early morning routine, I check the Meetups each day to see if there are any interesting events to go to. There’s also a decent amount of sponsored parties by larger tech companies that serve as great networking events, like the recent customer party that Mixpanel held in Tribeca. There are lots of articles and tips on how to network effectively at these types of events, and one of my personal favorites is to put a second nametag on (when they let you write your own on those “Hi, my name is” ones). I put the second one underneath the first and usually write “Ask me about PM jobs” or “I like bacon”, as they usually elicit a more direct opening and give the other person a reason to come over.

#1 and #2 are really in service of #3, helping me get those individual “purple” meetings setup. I prepare for an individual networking meeting (usually at coffee at Ground Support Cafe, love those almond milk lattes) by thinking about the following and writing them down in LinkedIn on that person’s profile (in the Notes tab):

  • What’s an interesting news event, blog, or other fact that’s relevant to that person?
  • What do I hope to get from this person?
  • What can I offer them in return?
  • Is there anyone I know who would make sense to introduce to this person?

3. Be Diligent, Follow-up 

I’ve gone through all of this trouble to find, setup and prepare for these great conversations with new and interesting people – but what’s the point of doing it if you don’t follow-up?! I believe that following-up is one of the most crucial parts of any effective networking strategy, and it takes dedication and a system to do so well. I use LinkedIn as my personal CRM system, so after every networking meeting I write down the following either immediately (if possible) or that evening into that person’s LinkedIn profile:

  • Where we met
  • What we talked about
  • What I said I would give/send/share with them
  • What they said they would give/send/share with me
  • If and when we’re meeting up next (set a reminder)
  • Tag them with the month I met them (how I calculated 142 people last month)

After I write all that down I then send them an email following up and thanking them. Boomerang lets me schedule that message to return later.

Lastly, in order not to let my new contacts go cold, I spend time every Monday morning reviewing the connections I made that month and looking for opportunities to help them. This could be an introduction to a colleague or friend, sharing a cool article that’s relevant to them, or asking how an event went that they told me was coming up. Sometimes I don’t have anything to share with a particular connection and that’s okay – I try to be as genuine as possible and only reach out when I think it’s worth it. If you use the Reminders feature in LinkedIn this is super easy since you’ll get an email each morning with a summary of your tasks.

This is just what works for me. The methods and tools that I use in service of my networking goals are just that: methods and tools. Effective networking is really about the goals: if you have good goals, you can use any smattering of tools from my list or others to help accomplish them.

I’d love to hear what tips, tricks, and tools you all use to network effectively. And if you want to meet for an almond milk latter, hit me up!

Thanks!

-m