By Michael Melcher
Partner, Next Step Partners
Lauren Baer is a nationally-recognized civic leader who has navigated four major career pivot points. An attorney and foreign policy expert, her varied experience includes advising Secretaries of State, litigating at the U.S. Supreme Court, running for office in a ground-breaking Congressional campaign and leading an organization that is training and supporting the next generation of Democratic candidates and campaign staff.
In Episode 40 of my Career Stewardship podcast, Lauren Baer shares the details of her key career pivot points — two of which grew out of loss. Her story is full of lessons about resilience, vocation and relationship-building.
Following are a few key excerpts from our conversation (that have been edited for clarity and brevity). Listen to the full interview here: She Hated Networking. Then She Ran for Congress.
Michael Melcher: When we first met, you were working at the State Department, but you were going to make a move and do something else and so we connected. Part of what we talked about, that will also be relevant as we talk about politics is networking. I want to take you back to where you were in your life then and what you thought about this idea of networking, and that somebody was telling you that you needed to go out there and up your game, and make it happen?
Lauren Baer: Well, Michael, when you told me that I was going to have to up my networking game, I was somewhat horrified. I should start by saying that I am naturally a bit of an introvert. Up to that point, I had been a lawyer in private practice and then an official in the Obama administration. To me, networking meant working your way around a cocktail party and making small talk. That was not at all something that I enjoyed, it made me uncomfortable.
I thought of it as something that was very transactional, you go to a place with the intention of meeting people with the hopes that you might gain something personally or professionally, at some point down the road from that connection.
Michael Melcher: That doesn’t sound super appealing, walking around cocktail parties, looking transactionally. How do you think it was that that was how you understood what networking was? Because this is common.
Lauren Baer: Yes, I think that was my understanding of networking because I’d been exposed to it in a very limited context. Mostly in the context of events that were billed as this is a networking event that you might want to attend. When I was a litigator, it might have been a networking event for let’s say, women lawyers, when I was at the State Department, it might have been billed as a networking event for foreign policy professionals. These usually had a certain formula to them, you would show up, there would be a cheese platter, there might be some drinks.
Michael Melcher: It all sounds hideous and lanyards, lanyards and name tags.
Lauren Baer: Lanyards and you would awkwardly walk around, trying to introduce yourself to folks. If you were me, you might spot the two or three people in the room that you already knew and try to sequester yourself in a corner with them. I haven’t really seen a vision of networking that was more tailored to being part of one’s professional growth in a meaningful and substantial way.
Michael Melcher: What then changed about how you conceived of networking?
Lauren Baer: I think what changed, first of all, was that you brought networking down to much more of a one-on-one interaction. For me, you had me think about who it was that I already knew, and who amongst people that I already knew, liked, and trusted, did they know who might be interesting for me to meet? It became much less about the random interactions that one might have, let’s say, attending a cocktail party, and much more about purposefully meeting individuals who could help guide my next steps.
When I started thinking about it that way, I came to the realization that networking the way you were talking about it really just meant relationship building. Relationship building was something I liked, something I enjoyed, something I was good at. That opened up a whole new window to me in terms of what could come from these interactions.
Michael Melcher: Yes. In earlier episodes, we talked about this idea of the strength of weak ties, where people you don’t know all that well or have fallen out of touch with could be really powerful. You’re pointing out something slightly different, which is in your case, connecting to people you already knew was very useful and then those people could help you get to the next level. They could be a friendly intermediary, if you will. They could even have maybe a curating function where they could give you an idea of who would be the great next person to talk to and what you might talk to them about.
Lauren Baer: Exactly. Networking became about exploring people that I was tied to already in some way, even if that wasn’t apparent to me, even if it was two or three degrees of separation and figuring out how I could foster a conversation, build a relationship with these folks in a way that might be helpful to guiding my next steps. Also just might be useful in terms of getting to know someone who I would enjoy associating with going forward.
Michael Melcher: One other thing I want to point out is that a resistance many people can have to networking is this idea that it doesn’t really relate to competence. There are a lot of people that I would describe as competence-oriented, meaning you learn something, you work hard, you do good work, and there’s a belief the work should stand for itself, which sometimes it does.
Then the idea that you’re supposed to go out and meet and talk to people and either promote yourself or share of yourself, or build relationships in maybe a somewhat undefined way can really go against the grain of people who are competence-oriented. It almost seems like a violation of the social compact. If I could take myself back in history a bit, when I first met you, you clearly knew a lot of people, had formed great relationships, but you would’ve struck me as a pretty competence-oriented person. Is that fair?
Lauren Baer: Yes. I think that’s a fair assessment and I’d also spent that point in my life, the majority of my career in very competence-oriented environments. I spent a lot of time in school and graduate school and then working in a law firm and then working for the US government areas where domain expertise was key to advancement. I think when you and I started talking, what I had started contemplating was, how do I take the next steps in my career and grow in ways that I want to grow professionally, that aren’t necessarily just tied to the acquisition of more knowledge, but skills as well.
Michael Melcher: When the next step is not necessarily the same vertical, or going in a bit different direction. I remember telling you at one point that I thought you had a very specific type of brand, by which I meant a lot of people might not quite get you or fully value you. There would be people out there who would fully get you, but it’s a question of actually finding them.
There are other people that have a bit more of a generic brand.
They have a certain set of skills, personality traits that can plug in a lot of different places, but I felt that you, not withstanding your many accomplishments, were very specific. Therefore, there was a little bit of looking for the needle in a haystack. When you’re going through lots of straw and not finding said needles, it could be really frustrating, but it’s why the networking approach was so essential because you weren’t going to find what you needed just by looking on indeed.com or similar.
Lauren Baer: If I were to extrapolate from that even more, what I would say is that ultimately, one of the things that you taught me is a lesson that I now often convey to other folks when I’m mentoring them in career transitions, which is that who you’re working with is in some ways as important as what you are doing. The process of getting to know so many people through the networking that I did when I was exploring a career shift, I came to better understand the types of individuals that I wanted to work with and the types of environments that I would thrive in. That’s a very valuable exercise, I think, for anyone to undertake.
Michael Melcher: Tell us a bit about how you decided to run for Congress and also how networking came into play there?
Lauren Baer: Rewind a little bit to the end of 2016, at that point I was still working in government. I thought my former boss, Hillary Clinton, was going to be elected president of the United States and would be my future boss and that I would stay happily working in the foreign policy space. Then we all know what happened, Donald Trump was elected president and right around the same time I gave birth to my first daughter. I remember thinking at that time my whole conception of the world that my kid is being born into has fundamentally been upended.
She’s actually being born into a world that’s very different than the one I imagined even a few months ago. I started asking myself this question that I often ask at points of career transition which is how do I have the most impact now. After a great deal of deliberation and consultations I came to the conclusion that I could have the most impact at that particular juncture in history by running for office in my home state of Florida trying to flip the deep red congressional district I was raised in blue.
Over the course of our 30-minute conversation, Lauren and I discuss more details about her path and career transition, including:
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As one of the partners at Next Step Partners, Michael is a seasoned expert on developing leaders, building inclusive work environments, and helping senior professionals make career transitions. A former lawyer, foreign service officer and startup CEO, he has navigated several career transitions himself.
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Lauren Baer is a nationally-recognized civic leader who has built her career generating social impact at scale. An attorney and foreign policy expert, her varied experience includes advising Secretaries of State, litigating at the U.S. Supreme Court, and running for office in a ground-breaking campaign for U.S. Congress.
She is currently managing partner of Arena, an organization that convenes, trains, and supports the next generation of candidates and campaign staff. Since 2017, Arena has helped elect 31 candidates to Congress, state, and local offices.
To learn more about Arena’s three upcoming trainings and apply, visit Arena.Run/Academy.