The summer I graduated from Laurier, I was thrilled to embark on a month-long backpacking trip around Europe with my friends.
Those four weeks took me to eight countries, on 15 train rides and found me in a dozen communal hostel rooms.
The trip let me see and do things I’ll never forget: roughing it on my slim budget, picnicking on the grass beneath the Eiffel Tower and using my ISIC card to enter the Coliseum in Rome, among others.
But the most surprising experience of all was turning my world tour into a work opportunity I couldn’t have found at home.
An unexpected start
Opportunity can come from the least likely places – including inconvenient setbacks.
After arriving in Geneva only to discover a shortage of hostel beds, I found myself staying with a family friend-of-a-friend who happened to live in the city. One night, she took me to a dinner party she was attending (as anyone who has backpacked knows, you never pass up a free meal).
I was seated beside a doctor from the World Health Organization (WHO) and I asked her all about her life in the UN while we settled into our appetizers. That conversation led to swapping life stories and current projects during the entree – by dessert, I was handing over my phone number for an interview for an internship at the WHO in Geneva!
Whether you’re in an unfamiliar country or steps from home, there are 5 steps to take if you want to turn a conversation into an opportunity:
1. Be an awesome listener
Pictured: the ears of an active listener
Finding opportunities is an active process, just like networking, applying to jobs or marketing yourself in an interview.
However, all of these steps start with good listening skills. Grow your ears to be as big as Dumbo’s. You can’t learn without new information and you can’t acquire any if you’re talking about yourself.
I was able to make a personal connection at this dinner party by maintaining eye contact, acknowledging information with body language and asking follow-up questions based on the information I had just heard.
Test your listening skills by thinking about a recent conversation. You’ll probably find that it’s much easier to recall what you said than what you heard. Get practicing!
2. Develop curiosity
When you travel, you ask and answer a lot of questions.
There’s nothing wrong with that, because questions are a simple and easy way to get to know someone. However, when you’re looking for an opportunity, you want to ask questions that will spark meaningful conversation.
My genuine interest in the WHO led to both playful and serious questions like:
“What is a typical day for you at the WHO?”
“How do you prioritize projects and causes?”
“What’s the most surprising thing you’ve had in the UN cafeteria?”
A question is an invitation to engage, so while you’re busy not talking, you should be coming up with questions to ignite interest in your conversation partner and build engagement. At the end of the day, great questions sprout from your genuine curiosity and fascination – so questions are a way for you to radiate authenticity and drive a conversation.
Take cues from your conversation partner. If they seem bored with broad questions, get more specific. If you feel lost, don’t be afraid to let them choose the next topic.
3. Be a problem detector
If you listen carefully and pose engaged questions, you will soon find yourself immersed in a lively discussion.
Once you’ve moved beyond questions and answers, your conversation partner will likely share things they wouldn’t have disclosed to you a handful of minutes earlier – not secrets or confidential information, but personal feelings about challenges they’re facing or areas of particular interest that they’d like to develop.
Halfway into our conversation, the WHO doctor started describing some project challenges she was facing and identified areas where she was having trouble with marketing certain initiatives outside the organization. I listened to her needs and started thinking of ways I could use my skills to help solve her problems.
You can identify these problems by listening for hints, remarks or statements like:
“I wish I could…” “The problem is…” “I’m not sure how to…”
When these statements come up, dig deeper to understand the underlying problem and think to yourself, how I can help? Sometimes, your help can be an anecdote, a story or information from an article you read. At other times, the solution may just be YOU. Then, its on to step 4.
Don’t get discouraged if you can’t identify a problem right away. Concentrate on acquiring more information and asking good questions.
4. Showcase your personal brand
This is the big step.
Once you’ve spotted your potential opportunity and confirmed that it matches your skills and experience, it’s time to make your move.
If the conversation you’re having is quite lively and informal, you can say something direct:
“I have some experience in this area.”
“Have you considered…”
“Can I share my thoughts on this?”
If you’re afraid of coming on too strong, try an indirect approach. Share a relevant personal story that offers some problem-solving solutions and demonstrates your skills. You can also get your conversation partner to explain the problem in more detail by asking further questions, which may prompt them to ask for feedback from you.
I was able to link my business degree, passion for marketing and experience working in cross-cultural teams back to the WHO doctor’s interest in marketing practices and stakeholder engagement. By drawing these connections, I showed her that I was well-equipped to help her tackle the challenges before her.
Know who you are, what you stand for and what value you bring to the table. Having a clear sense of your personal brand gives you confidence to display your strengths, talk about your experience and demonstrate your value.
Sincere enthusiasm is crucial. Don’t try and solve problems that are outside your interests or skill-set – not every opportunity is right for you.
5. Follow up fearlessly
Even the most promising conversation won’t lead to a real opportunity without follow-up.
Make sure you’ve got some way of staying in touch with your new contact once you part ways. You can exchange contact information, find each other on social media or even plan a follow up meeting right then and there. It takes courage and a firm belief in yourself to carry the opportunity forward.
In my case, I knew it was a unique opportunity to be in Geneva speaking with WHO doctors so I had to maximize this chance by offering myself to help solve the marketing challenges of this WHO doctor. It felt scary but I did it anyway. One month later, I was getting my employee photo taken in the lobby of the WHO in Geneva and off on a journey that would change my career and life forever.
Choose your communication method carefully. A phone call is direct and personal, but might be tough to schedule around your travel plans.