Sweeney, 52, draws upon his upbringing as the ninth child and ninth son born to Raymond and Marian Sweeney – their 10th child was a daughter – and upon his 28 years in business as owner and operator of four manufacturing companies, former president of the Wisconsin Sports Authority, and founder and president of Sports Management Group. He is currently a managing director of Corporate Financial Advisors where he brokers business transactions.
A question about death motivated him to write a book about what he had learned in life. The questioner was Jack Canfield, co-creator of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, who asked Sweeney, “If you had six months to live, what would you do?”
“That started forcing me to reflect. I finally said, ‘I think I’d write a book for my kids,’” he recalled.
Six months later, after Canfield asked, “Did you finish that book?” Sweeney began.
“I’ve done a lot of crazy things in business. When I’m dead and gone, I’m not sure my kids would believe it,” he said. “So what I did was I broke my life down into 14 chapters. I had no intention of writing a book. I wrote a page of what I did on each chapter and why I did it, and my reflections of what I learned on it.”
From reflection to bestseller
With so many experiences and so much encouragement, the reflection was still a challenge for Sweeney.
“When you write a book about your personal experiences, about something you’re really passionate about, that includes your life’s experiences, it’s like going through deep therapy for a year,” he said. “Because what it forced me to do during this reflection process is think about everything in my life.”
Getting to the point at which he could reflect might have been the biggest challenge to writing the book, he noted, as he and his wife of 30 years, Tami, were busy raising their four children.
“People of good faith, and I’m not saying that I am, you should really reflect along your life,” he said. “But when you’re raising four kids, I never took time to reflect; I was getting from one Little League game to another.”
With his children – Kyle, 27, Conor, 25, Kelly, 23, and Brendan, 21 – grown, Sweeney reflected “on the things I’d done in my life and the lessons I learned.” His plan was to give these reflections to his children when he died.
Craig Leipold, a close friend, shared with Sweeney what his father-in-law, Samuel C. Johnson Jr., had written for his children years earlier. The volume moved Sweeney, and he “began horsing around” with the idea of writing a book. He shared a chapter with Leipold, who, Sweeney recalled, told him, “’This is really good. It’s about your whole philosophy in life because there’s a sales end, a giving end, a sports end; you should think about publishing this.’”
Three years after he first thought about writing a book, and with the help of ghost writer Mike Yorkey – “I brought the clay and he helped form the clay,” according to the author – Sweeney was published. This past October, “Networking,” now in its third printing, made The New York Times best seller list.
The kid, Ara and helping others
At age 8, Sweeney had what he considers an “ah hah” moment in his “really loving” family.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t feel right. I knew I was loved. I knew I belonged to something bigger than myself, but I didn’t feel I was making a difference,” he said.
That opportunity to make a difference came during Christmas break in 1966 when Raymond, Marian and seven of their children drove from Madison to South Bend, Ind., to visit the second oldest son, Jack, who was a student at Moreau Seminary on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Another son, Tim, had just finished playing freshman football for the Irish as a “walk-on” – no scholarship.
During that family visit to Notre Dame, Sweeney made his way to the office of Ara Parseghian, and asked to see the legendary coach. As they visited, Sweeney touted the athletic prowess of Jack and how his brother hoped to be a part of the Irish varsity the following season.
“Oh, yes. I’ve heard of your brother. He did a good job for us on the freshman team this season,” Parseghian said.
“I know,” replied Sweeney. “So are you going to give my big brother a scholarship?”
“Joe, all I can promise is that we’re looking at a lot of quarterbacks, but I’ll make sure your brother gets a good look.”
Whether it was the 8-year-old’s intervention, Parseghian’s judgment of talent, or a combination of both isn’t known, but several months later Jack was awarded a scholarship for his sophomore season.
“That was the first time I said, ‘You know what? I helped my brother get a scholarship.’ It was a breakthrough moment,” Sweeney said. “It wasn’t about me; it was about how I could figure out how I could help my brother. I don’t have it down yet; I’m still working on it. That’s kind of the premise of the book. When you go and help others, all this stuff comes back.”
Make me an instrument of networking
10 points apply to both
Throughout “Networking is a Contact Sport,” Joe Sweeney, a self-described “bullet point guy,” frequently refers to 10 points he employs as an effective networker, particularly if one is looking for a job.
1. Be clear about your objectives and outcomes.
2. Do your research.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask.
4. Get comfortable with traveling outside your comfort zone.
5. Try, try, try – and then try again in a creative way.
6. Do your best to connect the dots.
7. Seek out in-person contact – there is no substitute for the personal touch.
8. Take 100 percent responsibility for your networking.
9. Treat others as you would want to be treated.
10. Present an offer to help others before you ask for anything.
Could those 10 points also be the basis for an evangelization plan?
“Absolutely,” Sweeney replied.
While his Rolodex and Blackberry may contain a Who’s Who of the biggest names in sports, business and media, it was the words of St. Francis of Assisi that helped Sweeney get them there.
“The number one element of all of this was connecting with others. If you look at a Catholic sense of this, it’s the Prayer of St. Francis: ‘In giving that we receive…’” he said. “If you want to be a master networker, learn to be a selfless giver. That’s kind of right from St. Francis.”
The Franciscan thread doesn’t end there
“When he says, ‘Dying we are born into eternal life,’ what I think he really meant – Catholics say, ‘Isn‘t it great, we can die and then go to heaven?’ – (is) why can’t you do it now? I think what he was really talking about is dying to your ego and dying to ‘it’s all about me,’” he said. “I don’t think you have to die to experience eternal life. You can do it here. And I think that’s what St. Francis meant. But you have to get out of yourself and the whole idea, and I don’t care if you’re a business person, an attorney or an accountant, it’s really about how can I use my gifts to serve others.”
Sweeney said that people want to belong to something bigger than themselves, want to love and be loved, and want to know that their lives have had meaning and that they have made a difference.
“If you understand networking, business and life in that context, you’d be a great networker,” he said.
He cited examples from business.
“BMW kicks the crap out of Harley (Davidson) in performance standards, but Harley outsells BMW. You know why?” he said. “Because of its HOGS – Harley Ownership Group. It makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourselves.”
Regarding loving and being loved, he mentions Coke’s “I want to teach the world to sing” ad.
“It has nothing to do with Coke,” he said. “Great advertisers understand that.”
Sweeney said his approach has elicited criticism from business people.
“‘Oh, you’re just like Mother Teresa.’ (Expletive). There’s a process: You ask, listen, act, and then you’ve got to believe and receive,” he said.
Preparation for ‘final exam’
Expressing amazement at and gratitude for the success of “Networking,” Sweeney quotes Wayne Dyer, an internationally renowned author and speaker in the field of self-development.
“When I wake up every day I say three things: I’m grateful for all of this. I’m willing, I’m open,” he said. “I’m being pulled by this thing.”
Short term, Sweeney is working on another book and sharing the message of “Networking” with business people.
“If you want to be a great business person, stop thinking about yourself. It’s really about giving and not getting,” he said.
But for Sweeney, what he says in the book applies to more than business; it’s about what he terms “that final exam.”
“We (Catholics) make it too complicated – purgatory, heaven, hell, limbo. I think it’s really simple. You’re going to be asked one question: ‘Were you a giver or a taker – did you give more to life than what you took?’” he said. “If you study the concepts of the book, you do it. You approach life and business as a place you go to give and not get, (and) you’re going to pass your final test. That’s the message of the book.”