Image via Radostina.Eu
Networking: it seems to be a hot topic that’s always on the table no matter what field you work in. Whether you’re a recent grad trying to get your foot in the door at your dream company, trying to switch jobs, get promoted, start a new career, or heck, even start a side hobby (like a blog!) networking is absolutely essential to your personal growth.
So, that got me thinking–how does one exactly nail networking? I mean, this is something that everyone deals with, right? How do you get someone to actually READ your email, or respond to your Linked In message? Why does this have to be so hard?
To attempt to crack the networkingcode, I reached out to a handful of young professionals across several different industries: media, finance, advertising, sales, and of course, my own–blogging. (AKA all of my friends, total disclaimer. We’re a pretty diverse group though, so rest assured.)
And what I found out might really surprise you. (And it did me too, but honestly, it totally makes sense.)
It pretty much all boils down to this:
Stop asking people you don’t know to coffee.
I know, I know. This is what you’re SUPPOSED to do. This is what you learn in school! This is what your parents tell you to do. That’s how the professional networking world used to work, is it not?
But hear me out. Let’s think about it for a second, yes?
Most people don’t have time to even get coffee with their best friend, much less a complete stranger. (Did a lightbulb just go off? Like, why haven’t we thought of this before?)
But when you ask someone to coffee, they feel bad telling you no, because of course, who wouldn’t want to help?
They feel badly if they tell you no, but they also feel badly about taking time away from their business or family to meet you, a random person, whom they don’t know, but still really want to help.
So, essentially, what started as a polite gesture on your part has actually put them in an awkward, lose-lose situation. (Not an emotion you want to subconsciously, unintentionally evoke from a potential mentor.)
When I heard different forms of this response roll in over and over from different people, it made me realize–this wasn’t the first time I was hearing it.
(It also made me be like OMG crap, how many times have I made this mistake reaching out to people?!)
I actually first heard something along these lines while reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In–a book that my mother had purchased for me, ironically, right before I decided to leave my job at a huge ad agency. I put off reading it for a year because I didn’t really think it would be that applicable to me, but it turns out, it was.
There’s a chapter called, “Are You My Mentor?” which actually re-affirms this sentiment. Sandberg’s point? You can’t just go up to any old person and ask “Would you be my mentor?” It has to be an organic journey. Think of it like a cold call. Or going up to a random person on the street and say, “Hey! You! Would like you like to grab a drink with me?” Probably not. But, all is not lost. Don’t get discouraged, just keep reading! Here’s what to do instead:
Networking Alternative #1: Give before you take.
The people who get furthest in this world are ones who give more than they take. They always bring something to the table, and they not only give more than they take, they give before they take.
By giving before you take, you establish a relationship with a person way before you ever ask for their time. (Something that people are very protective of, even more than money!)
Maybe you follow them on social media and cultivate a friendly conversation that way–letting them know your feedback on their articles or blog posts, retweeting their tweets, etc. I can’t tell you how many great friends I’ve made online that I’ve never met in person! You can bet that when I see their name pop up in my [over 1,000 unread emails, oy] inbox, they’re going to be the first I reply to and go out of my way to help. Because that’s what friends do! If you try to take before you give, you’ll probably never develop a real friendship.
Let’s go with another scenario: there’s a Senior VP whom you really admire. Maybe they’re working on a certain project that you’ve heard about through the grapevine–you could send them links to helpful articles and say “This is a really helpful article I thought would be particularly relevant to X project!” or even, “I have a little more bandwidth to help out this week than usual, I’d be happy to lend a hand on the presentation if you need any extra help!” This got me a long way in advertising, and lead to two promotions at two different companies much more quickly than the norm.
Little actions like these go leaps and bounds above and beyond than just shooting someone a blind email which is essentially saying, “Hi, you don’t know me, but can you go out of your way to tell me everything you did to be successful so I don’t have to work for it myself?” (Not saying that some people aren’t happy to do this for random strangers, I’ve done it many times, but it doesn’t always make the best first impression.)
Networking Alternative #2: Make it more time consuming to say “no” than “yes.”
Whomever you’re trying to speak with, always make it a goal to give them an offer they can’t refuse. It should be more time consuming for them to email back, “I’m sorry, I just don’t have the time right now” than for them to answer your question.
How? It’s all in the question that you ask. This is another tip that Sandberg touches on in Lean In. (And yes, you read that right. ONE question.)
Make sure that your question is A. Specific enough to that person that nobody else should be able to answer it and B. That it’s not answered anywhere on their blog, website, or on the internet somewhere else.
For example, let’s pretend that you’re a new graphic designer and you’re reaching out to a graphic design entrepreneur who owns her own business and blogs/podcasts about tips for newbie graphic designers:
Email subject: Graphic design tips
Question: “I’m starting my first graphic design class, do you have any tips for newbies?”
Why is it bad? It’s vague, not personal, will take a long time to answer and frankly, a quick google search would be able to answer that question.
The entrepreneur’s impression: I write entire articles about graphic design on my blog and this girl was either not competent enough to find them, or too lazy to read them.
Email subject: I loved your book reccos, “X title” and “X title” do you have any others?
Question: “I absolutely love your website and how you speak specifically to new graphic designers. Your tutorials have given me more confidence than I ever thought possible to make my new side hustle succeed–I cannot thank you enough!
I wanted to follow up regarding tips you shared on your latest podcast episode–you mentioned books X and X as being helpful for you when you first started out. I’ve read them as well, and I completely agree, those are some of my favorites!
I was wondering if you had any more book recommendations? I’ve loved everything you’ve recommended so far and I’m on the hunt for a new book!
Thanks again for all you do! P.S. I also grew up in Indianapolis. Go Colts!”
Why is it great? EVERYTHING is short and to the point, even the email subject line. She doesn’t even have to open the email to know what you want from her, and that it will take her 2 seconds to answer. You made it clear that you ALREADY listened to her first recommendations (AKA you’ve done your homework, and you’ve not only listened to her advice, you’ve implemented it with success, and would like to do it again.)
You also threw in an extra tidbit that establishes common ground, which tells her that you A. Pay close attention to what she has to say, and know she grew up in Indianapolis. And B. It makes her feel even more connected to you.
The entrepreneur’s impression: WOW I am so flattered–I can’t believe this girl is such a loyal reader and that she values what I have to say so much. I’m also super impressed she did her homework on those books, and OMG we’re both from Indy. Small world. I need to keep in touch with her!
Networking Alternative #3: Be upfront.
Photo via Lovely Indeed
Networking is part of getting ahead in the business world. There’s no way around it! Everyone has needed or wanted something from someone else in the past. People really do like to “pay it forward.” It’s just that they only have so many hours in a day.
Therefore, there’s no shame in just blatantly asking for something–BUT, do so acknowledging exactly what you’re doing.
Even something as simple as,
“I would love to buy you a cup of coffee, but completely acknowledge the fact that you can afford you own cappuccinos and have way more important things to do with your time, so even five minutes over the phone to answer a few simple questions would be huge! Of course, on the off chance that you do have a craving for free caffeine, please say the date and the time, and I’m there.”
There’s something admirable about someone who is unapologetically to the point. If I’m an executive who gets coffee and “informational interview” requests on a daily basis, I am WAY more likely to actually want to get coffee with this person in particular.
It proves that you are empathetic, which is a huge asset to have in any business setting. It also proves that you’re not a time waster, and hey–you’re funny, and a little gutsy too. Not to mention, you’re making yourself available whenever they are. (See below!)
(On that note, maybe that executive wants to hire you. You sound like the perfect employee.)
Let’s talk about another scenario.
Say you simply want to partner with someone–another blogger, another entrepreneur, another business owner in your space.
Guess what? You don’t need to buy someone coffee or require an hour of their precious time in order to make them realize you’d be a valuable partner!
If you have a great business, blog, website, branding, etc, it should be very apparent to them that you’d be a great person to pair up with. Just tell them what you want!
If they don’t respond positively, then you’re reaching out to the wrong people. (Or you need to work on your branding.)
Remember: Be available.
Keeping the above tips in mind, when you do reach out and request someone’s time (the right way, of course), it’s important to be available.
Have you ever sent an email like this before? (I have. #PalmToFace.)
My friend X went to college with your roommate, X, and recommended I get in touch with you, as I’m trying to get into marketing and I know you love your job in the marketing department at X company! If you’re up for it, I’d love to meet and pick your brain over coffee! I’m available on this Tuesday at 8am, Friday at 6pm, or Sunday at Noon.” Have you tried X coffee shop? I’d love to meet you there, it’s adorable and right by my house! My treat, of course. Hope to hear from you soon!”
Notice how many times “I” was used in that tiny paragraph. What does that say when you give availability in your outreach email? It says your schedule is more important than theirs. You’re essentially saying, “here are the times I (the more important one) can fit YOU (the less important one, clearly with a less busy schedule) into my life.”
Same with just throwing out a coffee shop, expecting this person who doesn’t know you, might very well have to schlep 30 minutes out of their way (or pay for an Uber out of their own pocket) to get across town to meet you.
Not a great first impression to make, right?
More over, understand that asking for someone’s time on the weekend is a HUGE ASK. Everyone prioritizes their weekend differently. Just because you’re willing to work on Saturday doesn’t mean you need to pressure someone else to! (Again, what would you say to a random stranger on the street asking you to meet you across town to hang out on Saturday?)
The Golden Rule? Be empathetic.
If you only take one thing away from this article, I hope it’s the overall message to be empathetic when it comes to networking (and life in general). The key to approaching networking is understanding the other person’s time constraints, schedule, work-life balance, and using that to guide your approach in reaching out to them. (Also, ALWAYS remember to say “Thank you!”) This will go SO FAR in establishing your credibility, and make you a better professional, and person, because of it!