Networking Metaphors and More: An Interview with Miguel Abascal
Miguel Abascal is someone you remember. I first met him in 2016 when I worked on Volunteer Toronto’s Grassroots Growth project. Miguel founded UnstoppableMe.rocks in 2015. This grassroots organization has helped hundreds of newcomers learn about and succeed in the unique job market in Canada through mentorship and networking. Miguel was eager to learn about volunteer engagement best practices to take the organization even further. He was curious and asked great questions. I learned a lot from observing his approach to leadership and building relationships.
I’ve enjoyed keeping in touch with Miguel over the years and I’m always intrigued by his LinkedIn posts. This summer, Miguel posted:
“Networking isn't just about who you know, but about who knows you.
I've seen many professionals, particularly newcomers to Canada, stumble when trying to build their professional network. It's not enough to simply collect contacts or attend countless networking events.
Instead, think of building your network like weaving a tapestry. Each connection is a unique thread that, when woven together with others, creates a magnificent piece of art that represents your professional identity.
And let's take that analogy further: each thread (connection) has its own color (area of expertise), texture (personality) and length (level of influence). The more diverse your threads, the richer and more resilient your tapestry becomes.
So when networking, don't just focus on quantity. Quality connections – those that can add a new color or texture to your tapestry – are truly priceless.
What's one way you connect with others in meaningful ways? I'd love to hear your thoughts.”
The metaphor of weaving a tapestry resonated with me a lot and was similar to Volunteer Canada’s 2023 theme for National Volunteer Week: volunteering weaves us together. So, I contributed to the conversation and said:
“I love this analogy! My tip is when you can, connect people in your network with one another. Weaving those connections together strengthens your tapestry and theirs!”
I felt compelled to continue the conversation with Miguel and share it via this blog.
JPP: Thanks Miguel for taking time for this interview. I’d love to start by asking you to share why you have such a deep passion for networking.
MA: So let's go back in time to 13 years ago. I was killing it in my role at a big coffee brand in Mexico. I was part of quadrupling the company and travelling the world to represent it.
So I said, “You know what? Canada would be very lucky to have me.” I was cocky.
When I came to Canada, I received a much-needed dose of humility because it took me five years to find an entry-level job in my profession. I tried everything and some of the things I tried were successful, but mostly I did all the things you should not do.
Now, I joke around with people and say, I did a second bachelor's and a second master's degree in everything you should not do as a newcomer to Canada.
JPP: Wow. Your story is a prime example of not only learning from your mistakes but also turning mistakes into opportunities for yourself and others. We hear a lot in the news nowadays about the challenges highly-educated newcomers face around credential transfer and the Canadian job market in general. What do you believe was your primary challenge in finding that first entry-level role?
MA: My primary challenge was that I didn’t have a network in Canada. In Mexico, I knew everybody and everybody knew me. When I moved here, I overlooked that I had to start from scratch.
A friend of mine explained it very beautifully, “When you are born into the world and have a loving family, at least 100 people are expecting you; at least 100 people are interested in your life.”
But, when you move to a new place, honesty, nobody cares.
JPP: That’s sad to hear. So what did you do to find people who care? How did you ask for help?
MA: To be honest, that was another challenge to overcome. I come from a culture where you cannot show weakness. You cannot show vulnerability, therefore, you cannot show or share that you are struggling.
So I struggled by myself for many years. But over time, I understood that vulnerability is a strength. And I started to reach out to my network for help with things. Then, I discovered the power of mentoring, which significantly changed my life.
So, I want to rewind for a minute and revisit some of those mistakes you made as a newcomer. Could you give me a few examples?
MA: When newcomers arrive to Canada, there are services available for them. I engaged with all the services to support my job search, where I heard over and over again, “You need to do networking.” So I asked, “How can I do networking?” And someone gave me the advice of going on informational interviews.
I was curious and asked what an informational interview looks like. They responded, “You go on a coffee date with a stranger and ask questions.” So of course I did, and you can just imagine what happened.
My conversations were robotic, boring, and awkward. I said things like, “Hello, Jessica, I'm here to ask you some questions about the industry, and can you tell me more about your job?”
JPP: Yikes! So how did you go from those robotic conversations to being a networking expert?
MA: I'm very stubborn and persistent. I don't give up easily. I was determined to master networking. And I went deep. I read books. I asked questions.
Fast forward 13 years; I have not applied for a job in a while because my last six promotions have been over coffee meetings. I’ve finally found this unicorn called the hidden job market!
JPP: Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just download all the knowledge about networking into our brains? Unfortunately, we can’t. Can you recommend any books or resources on networking that helped you?
MA: Harvey Mackay’s Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty is a must-read. I still refer to it regularly. It gives you a very simple approach to networking and the methodology is so easy. It's pretty much about knowing and caring about the other person.
JPP: I will be picking up that book for sure! It sounds like it would align with my ethos. I believe that showing someone you care is the start of building a positive reciprocal relationship. And now I realize why we clicked from the start!
MA: Yeah, 100%. You know, when I started this networking journey, I had a transactional approach. I went fishing at networking events. When you're fishing, you think, “Oh, maybe I’ll get a big fish. Or maybe I’ll find a small fish.”
That approach doesn’t work. Because if you go to a networking event with that mindset, you are focused on:
“I need to impress”
“I need to showcase my experience”
“I need to be awesome”
No one cares.
But if you go to a networking event thinking:
“It's not about me, it's about the other person.”
“How can I help? How can I serve? How can I elevate?”
Everybody wants to be around you. People want to be around givers, not takers.
If I can summarize my advice, I would say to focus on the other person and take care of the needs of the other person first. And then by the law of reciprocity, you are taken care of in return. Check out this quick video about the Allegory of the Spoons to help the idea sink in.
JPP: And what is your advice for a newcomer who feels like they have nothing to offer to those they are networking with?
MA: First off, when you move to a new country and things are not going your way, it’s natural to feel less confident and doubt yourself. Second off, imposter syndrome and poor mental health are real challenges.
In general, newcomers are in this country because they have surpassed thousands and thousands of other applications. They have a lot to offer!
I would say, “There is no one in the world with your perspective, your history, and your experience.” I would encourage them to think about what they can do to help the other person.
A story I like to share is something a mentee of mine did for me. I was visiting my family in Mexico and ready to head home. The night before I flew back to Canada, there was a huge snowstorm. My mentee knew that I would be coming home in the middle of the night to two feet of snow in the driveway.
He imagined what it would be like for my wife and I to bring our two babies and all our bags inside in two feet of snow. Then, he asked if he could come over and shovel my driveway. This gesture, this care he showed for my family, was super special. At the end of the day, he didn’t shovel my driveway before we got home- my neighbour did. What mattered was that this mentee cared so much about me and showed how much he cared through this gesture. And because of that, I care so much about him.
Another story I can share is when I was lost and starting out in Canada at a Latin professional association networking event. The event was at a very crowded bar and we could barely move around. So, I invited everyone who wanted to come over to my place for tacos.
JPP: It’s hard to say no to tacos.
MA: Yeah! And one of those people who came to my apartment was a mentor who helped me accelerate. Tacos were an opportunity for him to get to know me.
JPP: And asking people to come over to tacos had nothing to do with the skills you learned through your degrees or the professional experience you had. You simply created a time and space to build a relationship.
MA: Yes, and this is why activities like golfing or fishing are great for networking.
JPP: Hmm… So, instead of asking someone to have a coffee meeting it is better to ask someone to do an activity together?
MA: Activities are great. I've seen people going to courses about wine or desserts or things like that and building amazing relationships. It’s because if you already share something in common, that creates a strong bond from day one. So, building a relationship is easier.
I have another story for you. I met someone at church and it turned out we both speak Spanish. So I said, “Let's go for tacos.” Well, that person helped me get the biggest job promotion in my career history! I was not strategically looking at his LinkedIn and thinking, “Oh, he has this position, therefore he's going to help me.” In fact, it took two years for that to happen.
JPP: Tacos seem to be a catalyst for relationship building! So… does this mean no coffee meetings?
MA: Coffee meetings are still a must. My recommendation is to approach coffee meetings with building a reciprocal relationship in mind. You have to be genuinely curious about the other person.
You also have to respect their time. Coffee meetings should be twenty minutes maximum.
Start with a quick introduction: explain why you’d like to have a coffee meeting and outline who referred you to chat with them. Tell them why you believe their advice is valuable.
Ask for advice; don’t ask for a job. I would say something like, “I noticed on your LinkedIn profile that you had these promotions and instead of taking the traditional approach you took a different one. I'm in that exact moment right now, I would love to pick your brain, because that is going to help me decide my next move.” The person will be like, “Yeah, for sure, I can help you with that.”
During coffee meetings you should speak less than thirty percent of the time and design the questions in a way that the other person talks about their accomplishments and successes. Because, when we talk about amazing things we’ve done, our bodies release endorphins. At the end of twenty minutes, they feel amazing. And every time they think about you, they will remember that feeling!
On the flip side, if you ask questions about the person’s challenges and biggest problems, they’ll come out of the meeting feeling tired. And the next time you want to chat with them, they’ll turn you down because they remember a feeling they don’t like.
JPP: That makes a lot of sense. Keep the dialogue positive to keep the person engaged.
MA: Right! The objective of the first meeting is to have a second meeting. And the objective of the second meeting is to have a third meeting.
During those meetings, learn more about them and consider how to serve them better. Then the next time you read an article about their favorite author, you’ll be prompted to send it over. The next time you see stickers featuring their child’s favorite cartoon, you’ll pick up a pack and send them over. They are top of mind for you, and vice versa.
This is a process that takes weeks and months. This isn’t fishing. It’s farming, it’s nurturing.
JPP: Yeah. I love that metaphor!
MA: Be genuine, authentic, connect with people that you have something in common with. Strong relationships and the referrals you might get through them are so much more powerful than getting a recruiter to notice you.
And like you said with your response to my LinkedIn post, when you can connect others, you need to do it. We all have a circle of influence. We all have a responsibility to speak our voices. We all have a responsibility to be ourselves.
JPP: That’s such an empowering message and this was such a cool conversation. Thank you, Miguel. I feel like we could talk for hours. Let’s find a time to meet up for some tacos. I’m looking forward to hearing about your podcasting experiences with Newcomers ON FIRE!