Whether you're new to the workforce or a seasoned pro, you've no doubt heard that one of the best ways to gain insider information about your dream job or industry is to talk to those already in the business. This might mean asking a LinkedIn contact how she got started creating computer game storyboards and scripts. It might mean asking a speaker from a conference you attended how he transitioned from the nonprofit world to corporate America. Or it might mean asking your neighbor's sister-in-law's cousin how she rose to director level at the landscape design firm that employs her.
I'm often on the receiving end of such requests, having worked for myself as a journalist, business writer and author for as long as anyone who knows me can remember. Each week my inbox swells with messages from former coworkers, friends of friends and people I've met at networking events who want advice about writing for a living. As you might suspect, I’ve found there’s a right way and a wrong way to tap an acquaintance for professional suggestions.
Here are eight ways to ensure your request for help is well received.
1. Educate yourself on the role or field first
Have you devoured every Web post, e-book and affordable workshop you can find on the industry or job title you covet? Have you researched basic details like the salary range, educational requirements and day-to-day job duties? If not, get cracking – before you reach out to industry vets in the trenches.
The more informed you are on your desired professional path, the more you’ll get out of your conversations with the pros. Take time to do the legwork and you’ll impress advice givers. Skip this critical step and you risk coming across as someone who can’t be bothered to make the minimum effort – and thus, a person unworthy of a pro’s valuable time. Some resources to get you started: salary.com, glassdoor.com and bls.gov/ooh.
2. Research your contact before getting in touch
LinkedIn is one of the most useful tools on the Internet. Don’t be afraid to use it. Brush up on your contact’s career trajectory, education and accolades as well as their employer’s history and mission.
Remember, there’s no shame in complimenting your contact’s recent success: an award, some good press, a product you admire. Flattery will get you far. It may even make the difference between landing the meeting or not. At the very least, it shows you’ve done your homework. After all, no one wants to go out of their way to help an industry greenhorn who can’t even be bothered to read their CV.
3. Work around your contact’s schedule
I work 45 to 60 minutes from downtown Seattle, depending on traffic. At least once a month, someone invites me to coffee downtown for the express purpose of “picking my brain.” First of all, that sounds painful. Second, I don’t have the three midday hours such a meeting would require. So I ask people to come to me or call me after business hours.
To increase your odds of getting the meeting, ask where, when and how would be convenient for your contact. For many people, it’s at their desk or the café down the street from their office. Ask for just 20 to 30 minutes of their time. If they want to give you more, they will. Be prepared for anything. Some people prefer walking meetings. Others only do Skype calls or Google Hangouts. If the meeting’s important enough to you, you’ll go with the flow. And by all means, pay for their coffee.
4. Come prepared to the meeting
Spend some time thinking about the questions you want to ask. Write them down in case you blank mid-meeting, and list them in order of importance. Depending how much time you have with the person, you may not get to them all. Forget questions you can easily answer online. Instead, ask about details missing from the person’s bio, social media profiles and published interviews with the media. Take notes during the call or meeting; the last thing you want to do is email the person afterward to ask for a recap.
5. Ask specific questions
During the meeting, keep questions short and precise. No one has time to give you a crash course on everything they’ve learned about their profession in the past decade or two. When someone asks me, “Can you tell me how to freelance?” or “How do I start writing professionally?” I point them to my books and a couple of my favorite online resources. Questions like those are too vast for me to answer in one quick message or coffee date.
The more targeted your questions, the more useful an answer you’ll get. Two of my favorite examples: “What was the most valuable class, book or resource that helped you prepare for this job?” and “What’s the biggest mistake you see newbies make in this profession?”
6. Temper your expectations
One meeting probably won’t turn an acquaintance into a lifelong mentor or your next boss. And just because someone gave you 20, 30 or 45 minutes of their time doesn’t mean they’ll appreciate you pinging them for weekly advice going forward.
A better approach to building long-term connections is to find out which professional groups your contact belongs to and join them. There’s no faster way to grow your network in an industry. Often your contact’s LinkedIn profile and company bio will unearth this information. If not, ask which online and offline groups they recommend. Supplement this intel with your own research into relevant professional associations. If you’re based in the Puget Sound region, iloveseattle.org is a great place to start.
7. Strike while the iron’s hot
If an advice giver offers to review your portfolio, introduce you to another industry contact or pass along your resume to their HR department, follow up by the next morning while you’re still fresh in their mind. Wait too long and their desire to help may recede or the window of opportunity may slam shut – for example, if they abruptly leave their job or get saddled with a lengthy flu or an all-consuming project.
8. Send a small thank-you gift
Yes, a gift, as in a $5 coffee card or a $10 box of chocolates (though I suggest adding a zero if they introduce you to your next employer). Why? Because if someone has been at their profession five years or more, chances are they get requests like yours all the time. Most of the people they help will send a quick “Thanks so much!” via email, text or social media. Some won’t bother to send a message of thanks at all.
But every so often, someone they’ve advised will snail mail them a note and token gift of thanks. These advice seekers make the best impression. They’re the ones advice givers are happiest to introduce to their colleagues at professional events. They may even be the first person an advice giver tips off if an appropriate spot at their company opens up.
In the end, your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for your career heroes to lend a hand. Ask them to jump through too many hoops, and your plea for guidance will fall flat. Be a gracious advice seeker and you’ll forge a clearer path to the career you want.