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Hi. How Can I Help You?

By Virginia Brown
Follow me on Twitter: @3manypuppies

We’ve all read articles about networking, and we know we’re supposed to do it to find that perfect professional opportunity. But something is missing from the conversation: What exactly should be happening at these network coffees and lunches? And how do you really make the most of that time?

I’ve worked at some high profile organizations, and I guess I know a lot of people. So I get frequently asked to coffee from folks seeking advice. And from those countless lattes, I can tell you that it’s what you do at our meeting that determines my course of action. Here’s what I’ve got to share with you today: in the immortal words of Jerry Maguire, “help me help you.” 

I recommend these four easy steps that will provide you a clear direction to having a successful networking meeting, and hopefully accomplish what you set out to get from the meeting:

  1. Figure out what you want,
  2. Tell me why I should help,
  3. Ask me specific informational questions and
  4. Request specific ways I can help.

Not that hard, right? But a majority of the meetings I accept don’t have a clear direction, which makes it hard for me to help. Let’s see how these steps play out.

  1. Understand in your own mind what it is that you want. Do you want your resume to get read, a personal recommendation, insider information about the hiring process, to be introduced to someone or simply pick my brain for an hour? Know what you want and be prepared to say it confidently when you ask me. Be flexible about the request too, like meeting somewhere that’s convenient for me.

  2. Explain why I should help. Let’s be honest, you need to convince me you won’t embarrass me if I recommend you to my connections. We might know each other well, but I may not know how passionate you are about this kind of work or that you used to volunteer at a similar organization. I may not know how your last job specifically gave you the credentials for this one. Tell me about your background and why we’re meeting. 

    This conversation should make sense to the person whose time you’re taking. If you’re interested in policy development, I’ll know that you didn’t look at my Linkedin profile. Otherwise, you would know I’ve got no experience in that field and can’t help. And now you’ve wasted my time. Make sure “Virginia” is the person who can actually get you what you want (refer to the first bullet).

  3. Prepare specific questions that relate to what you want. Do you think my experience is right for this job? Do you think I’d be a good cultural fit at your organization? Do you know any details about the position you could share? Tell me about your path to your current role. You’ve worked at two really high profile organizations–what do you think gave you the edge in your applications for those roles? You’ve been a generalist in your career–how do you explain that in interviews?

    If you’re meeting with a good friend, consider asking the trickiest question of all: Would you be comfortable with me applying for this position? This question is tricky because you open yourself up to the answer “no.” But I’d suggest that if your friend doesn’t want you working with them, you should know that.

  4. Ask me for specific actions on your behalf. Would you be comfortable putting in a good word with HR and the hiring manager? Will you be a reference? Given what you know about my interests, can you introduce me to others who can help me? Will you write a recommendation letter for my grad school application?

Think about how to make the most of your time when someone agrees to network with you. Vague questions and being shy about asking for what you want might not help you and worse, might hurt you. Come prepared and it will infinitely build your reputation and ability to get what you want.

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