I think sometimes the word “networking” gets a bad rap. People picture it as a form of speed dating…totally exhausting, you never know if it will be worth your time, and too many surface-level conversations without any real connections. But there are many ways you can “network” and have a valuable conversation with someone. One great example of this is asking someone to grab a coffee (or virtual coffee!). It is a one on one conversation where you can learn about the other person, their work, and how knowing each other can be mutually beneficial.
In my latest podcast episode, Alina Doran mentioned several times that as she navigated her career, the best opportunities arose over a cup of coffee. But if you aren’t used to reaching out to people or you have been burned by other forms of networking, it can be intimidating. So below are some pointers on how to ask for that potentially career-changing cup of coffee.
First, you want to be clear about why you want to connect with someone. Not only is it important so you can focus your search, but you also need to be able to clearly articulate why you are reaching out to the person. For example, when I was leaving the arts and thinking about HR, I reached out to a couple of people who worked in HR that were in my expanded network so I could better understand what they actually did. Another example is when I was leaving my last company and thinking about joining an earlier stage startup as the first HR leader, I reached out to someone I trusted who knew me really well and knew the startup space. I knew she would be honest if she thought that was a good next step for me. Those HR conversations 15+ years ago helped me learn a lot about all the areas of HR and how I wanted to start my new career. The drinks with that trusted friend led to my current job at Ordergroove, and I had no idea they were even considering adding a head of HR at that point!
You may be asking, “But where do I start, I don’t know anyone who has changed jobs or works in the field I’m interested in.” I’m going to guess that is actually not true, you just aren’t thinking about them in that way. Talk to friends, family, former colleagues, people from networking groups you are a part of, just ask around. You can also go through your LinkedIn contacts and see who has the right background. You can expand your LinkedIn search to 2nd level connections, and then see who your shared connection is and ask them for an introduction. The point is, you know someone, or you know someone who knows someone, who will be willing to chat with you. One person I talked to when I was making the move to HR was the VP of HR for the company my father worked for…who I had met when I was a teenager and worked at the company one summer. Someone I hadn’t kept in touch with, but she was really helpful and shared her career journey.
Finally, especially if you don’t know them well, think about the right way to make the ask in your message. Make it personal. Let them know you are reaching out to them because of something specific in their background. Maybe even remind them how you know each other if you don’t talk often. Be honest about what you are hoping to gain from the conversation. Acknowledge they may be busy, you are flexible to chat whenever it works for them, and you will keep it under 30 minutes to be respectful of their time. End your message by saying if there is anything you can do to help them at any point, please don’t hesitate to ask. It’s rare they will have a request but it shows a desire for a reciprocal relationship. The people I am more likely to respond to on LinkedIn reference something in my background that is meaningful for them (my focus on tech start-ups for example, or a shared college). It’s clear that it is not just a copy and paste message they sent to 50 other people, but they are reaching out to me because they think I can specifically help.
I know it’s scary to put yourself out there, but the answer will always be “no” if you don’t even try. At least by asking, you have a 50/50 chance the answer will be “yes”. Tune in to my recent mini-episode of Getting Off the Hamster Wheel where I give a couple of bonus tips as you prepare for the conversation itself. As Alina says, you never know where a coffee might lead. But it won’t lead anywhere if you don’t ask for the meeting!