Michael Bociurkiw is a two-time TEDx speaker. His career’s track record includes a spokesperson role with UNICEF, work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, and Forbes. And Michael runs a travel website, for those who want to escape the tourist bubble. We recorded this interview late last year, and I am excited to finally be posting it.
In store for you are: an awesome story, an excuse to feed your wanderlust, and advice on nurturing professional relationships (the right way). Every time I read through it I find a new bit of gold.
DI: Michael, tell us about yourself!
MB: I’m one of those people who evangelizes about the power of network, and how a network needs to be nurtured and maintained. Maintaining a network is more than liking something on Facebook, or connecting with a person on LinkedIn. It takes active face-to-face engagement.
I gave this story in my TEDxUW talk. A very dedicated member of my network, a guy called Ian, was in Central Asia and heard that UNICEF needed people for an emergency on the Afghan-Tajikistan border. I got an email from him and within a few days the process was going to get me there. It was a difficult decision for me because I was a freelance journalist at the time, and this was crossing the line into advocacy. As it turned out it was a marvellous and natural transition.
I feel that education is important, so is travel, reading. But in this day and age it becomes more complex as we have massive layoffs going on. I think about the students sitting in front of me at TEDxUW, and of course I hope for the best, but this is why I wanted to hit hard on this message of the importance of networking and reaching out and getting to know people.
The other thing I underscore is that you should help people, and offer to help them often. Because chances are during your time of need, they will be there to help you as well. My TEDx talk, as much as I would love to take credit for it, was really a product of collaboration. People from around the world volunteered to help me with it. And in the last days before it I was getting really anxious, so I actually reached out to a TEDx alumni, a speech coach in London, who I have not met before. I mentioned to her my anxieties and she said to calm down, everything will be fine. Her biggest pieces of advice were to breathe, and to think that you’re talking to people that love you and are supportive of you. That helped a great deal for me. So you don’t have to know people really really well, intimately, in order for them to help you. Even strangers will, and again it is that approach of reaching out and networking.
DI: How did you start your career?
MB: I am the son of a quite prominent university professor. Born in Edmonton, then uprooted and moved to Ottawa. Every few years professors get sabbaticals, so we got to go to London twice, and I got to put on snazzy uniforms for school. That was a lot of fun.
My father was always big on academic excellence, but I wasn’t the best student. A little known fact is that for my Grade 10 I went to a minor seminary – St. Vladimir’s College in Roblin, Manitoba – because my brother went there and I wanted to check it out. It was good experience for me because I was very shy, and this sent a bolt of lightning through me. I became Mr Activist afterwards. So I got involved in student politics quite heavily, and actually became president of the Ukrainian Canadian Student’s Union (SUSK). That had me traveling all over Canada, and to the chagrin of my parents, dropping out of courses.
I wanted to go into journalism, but was told to bugger off because my marks weren’t high enough. I thought, I’m going to show them. I applied for a mass communications program and got in. It was a good path because it gave me a good ethical grounding, and an understanding of history, economics, sociology. So I came out of it far more prepared to report on the world than if I had only taken journalism courses.
My big break was early on. My first article in a daily was in the Globe and Mail, front page, top of the fold. I had leaked a commission report, and it was the big news of the day. It took a lot of work, and it was nerve-wracking, but the Globe asked me to stay on the story. I interned with them in Toronto, which led to a stint in Winnipeg, Asia, and I freelanced a lot. MSNBC, opinion writing, LA Times, I had a very exciting ten years or so and even did some writing for Forbes Magazine. That got me into the offices of some of the most prominent leaders on the planet. Closer to 2000, the Dot Com boom happened, and I wrote a lot on that and worked out of Washington. Then after 9/11, that call came from Ian that I told you about. He basically said UNICEF is hiring, they’re looking for communications professionals to deal with journalists on the Afghanistan border. I didn’t have much time to think about it, but I thought this is what is going to give me a lot of opportunities.
DI: How do you go about deciding to work with UNICEF?
MB: You can let anxiety wall you in, but then you will miss opportunities. And I meant what I said during my Talk, when I said life is short. You should take a risk, and think about having two to three careers.
You have to be so nimble and flexible these days because things are changing all the time, including the world of journalism. My younger sister, Lydia, works in the television business and sees every day how things are changing. Robotic cameras, and reporters now not only doing the reporting but some of their own filming and producing. So the middleman is cut out, and what are you going to do if you are a cameraman? Again, this goes back to what I was preaching about having an effective network of people who care for you, who you know and stay in touch with. I’ve almost never had to look for a job in my life, it’s always come to me and I’m extremely lucky. But you have to work hard and prove yourself. You have to have a reputation. Keeping a network active is much more than liking someone’s post on Facebook.
Whenever I go anywhere, I make a list of who I am going to contact, see, and spend time with. It helps so much.
DI: How do you grow your network and reach out to people you haven’t spoken to before?
MB: My biggest tip is to not be afraid. If you are at a conference and see someone like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, go and introduce yourself. Be ready though. Be prepared as to what you are going to say, because most of these guys are in a hurry. My advice is to ask them what their biggest problem is, because even tech tycoons have those problems that their teams haven’t been able to solve yet. And maybe you can. Offering to help people pays back dividends.
The other thing is keep in touch with people. Write to them. Sounds like a lot of work but even a short note from time to time makes a difference. You have to keep on peoples’ radar screens, because people are easily distracted. If you are interested in a certain sector, keep on peoples’ radar screens. Help them remember you are there and interested in the sphere. Chances are you will be contacted out of the blue like I was.
DI: You said you can either let anxiety wall you in, or you can go for it. Was there a time anxiety could have made or broken your career?
MB: Family has been a source of anxiety. By that time my parents were getting on and it is always a huge anxiety – when you are halfway around the world – that God forbid someone gets ill. And it has happened, and it can be very difficult not being there.
The other thing is fear. What if I don’t make it? What am I going to do? Some leaps you take in your career can be pretty big, and it is not always an easy way back to where you were once. So you have to be calculating. As rudimentary as it sounds, when faced with a big decision make a list of pros and cons. See which is longer.
The other thing is trust your instincts. Oftentimes when I’ve double-crossed my instincts it has not turned out very well. At the end you have to make a decision. Don’t be afraid, it is good to take risks. I think some of the most successful people have taken big risks. If you fail, you have family and friends and your network. Your network can provide for you, if you keep it alive and stay on peoples’ radar screens.
DI: How does a student come across as a great addition to any network?
MB: What I’ve found with people across the board, whether in junior positions or CEOs, is they like to be asked about what they are doing. They like to get the sense that you are genuine, and that you’ve done your homework on who they are.
Another big trick when approaching people that I learned from live television is that the moment you start obsessing about what you look like or things going wrong, you could have a meltdown. Concentrate on the subject at hand. Normally with busy people who have a lot on their mind, you have a short window of time to engage with them.
The other thing is don’t walk away without exchanging contact details. It is a fine balancing act between who gives their details first, but it is easier to stay in touch with all the technology we have available to us.
DI: What are your recommendations to nineteen year olds who want to make themselves more capable, or marketable?
MB: As ideal as it sounds, volunteerism is very important. Internships and things like that. It often happens in the academic environment that people lack real life experience. It seems harder and harder to get that in this age because of companies slimming down and cutting back on budgets for internships. So do anything you can do to enhance your experience and CV by volunteering and working with people in varied groups.
Travel is also extremely important, so get out there as much as you can to different lands to better round yourself out. Also, the world is changing in a number of ways. Keep abreast of technology as it unfolds. For example, a year and a half ago Periscope (an app by Twitter to live-cast things on the fly) did not exist, but it is really changing the way we communicate in our profession. It appeared very quickly. Knowing what is out there and giving the impression that you are on top of things really puts you ahead of the pack.
DI: You mentioned travel is important. Can you tell us about MySavvyTraveller.com?
MB: MST came out of my own rolodex of travels. For as long as I can remember, people have been coming up to me and asking “I’m going to Dubai, where do I go and what do I see?” So finally I thought I have all this information, and I’m going to put it down. I launched the site with a partner of mine. MST is meant to be appealing to everyone, but more appealing to those who travel a lot and want to get outside the tourist bubble. And that’s what we evangelize, is to get away from those tourist crowds and get a human connection.
The other thing I found is even well-resourced people like to get a break. A discount, free upgrade, and we can help them do that. I do it informally anyway for a lot of friends and contacts. I like looking at what can be done in terms of enhancing peoples’ travel experience. And the point is to have a savvy journey – seamless and comfortable.
An important part of SavvyTraveller is the giving back aspect. One of the things I want to do is work with national tourist boards in countries like Ghana or Haiti or Nepal, and send more tourists that way. For example, Ghana has some amazing tourism assets. These places are becoming easier to fly to, but people do not know where to go or if it is safe or not. By working with tourism boards we can direct more traffic that way. And this has such a multiplier effect! One dollar spent in the tourism sector goes a long way in helping people who actually live there.
DI: What does success mean to you?
MB: I want to get involved in issues and talking about issues that are relevant to society. Success is being able to get involved in something that really makes you happy, that you feel is making a difference. It is difficult for people sometimes to find positions or projects they feel are making a difference, so that to me is success. And again, your network is really important for you to be able to do things like that.
I consider myself extremely lucky, because I am working on a bestseller book. It creates anxiety when I think about it, but it is something I can do now because I’m at the level where I know if it becomes difficult to finish, my network and friends and family will always be there to help me through it. A number of factors contribute to success, to you being able to make it in this world. You can’t underestimate the power of networking to do something like that.
There you have it, folks. Seventeen coffees down, 83 to go. A HUGE thank you to Michael for sharing his wisdom.