Help me network a little less awkwardly (what to do with my ham hands?)
August 11, 2012 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I am in between jobs, just moved to a new market and have been advised my alma mater's career counselor to set up coffee dates with alums who are working at places that I am targeting. How can I go about doing this in a way that balances networking etiquette and making the most out of these meetings?

I just moved to DC with my fiancee and luckily there are several alumni from my school where I did my master's. However, due to the nature of last position (in another state), my network has stagnated, so I need to meet people who are working in my field. The point of entry is our shared school and/or department and the means is usually linkedin.

I am trying to figure out a way to approach these meetings (particularly with those people I've never met) in a way that is not aggressively job-seeking, but is still effective at creating a good impression for future opportunities.

My idea thus far is to invite them for coffee, introduce myself, my work/career interests, ask them questions about themselves (people like talking about themselves, right?) and then gently probe for advice on cracking into places that never seem to hire through formal channels.

Does that sound right? Those who are frequently approached--what would you advise? Those who consider yourselves talented at this, could you share some tips?

posted by SpicyMustard to Work & Money (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
this is a great strategy and you seem to have a good approach planned thus far! linkedin is good but depending on your industry i would also check out facebook alumni groups and other industry specific networking sites as well. once you get in contact with someone that is willing to meet, maybe see if there is any extra research you can do on these individuals (work published somewhere? company projects posted online? did they work on said projects? etc.) that you can bring as talking points that might help get them started opening up about things if the conversation lags. good luck!
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 9:11 AM on August 11, 2012

Please just be aware as you do this that "inviting for coffee" is a pretty big imposition. It's fine to ask, people may be happy to do you the favor, but keep in mind it is a favor. Don't be surprised if they put you off, and do whatever you can to make it convenient for them. You might want to say something like "I know you're busy and if an offsite meeting isn't practical, I'd still value an opportunity to connect with you by coming by your office, or by phone or Skype."

(I get these requests all the time and I can never say yes. If it were an alumnus of my school, I would do my best to help them, but phone would probably be the extent of my ability to do so.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:25 AM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

And make it clear at the outset that you are NOT going to hit them up for a job (and don't! Unproductive, SUPER awkward.) Tell them that your goal is to ask them for insights about their industry, what the reputations are of the local firms, who they think you ought to talk to, etc.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:28 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Those who are frequently approached--what would you advise?

I can remember at least two similar questions (one, two); the range of answers there might be useful for you, if you haven't already looked at them.

Basically, I get a fair number of informational interviewers stopping by, but very, very few serious ones. If you are serious, you are going to be saying something like "I did A, B, and C on my own. Then so-and-so –" [hopefully a person in the field who is known to me] "– suggested X, Y, and Z, and I'm doing those things, too. What else would you suggest?" Not serious is saying "hey, how do I get into this field? Oh, that sounds like a lot of work, cool, thanks, bye forever!"
posted by Forktine at 9:51 AM on August 11, 2012

"I know you're busy and if an offsite meeting isn't practical, I'd still value an opportunity to connect with you by coming by your office, or by phone or Skype

nooooooooo. Don't give them the choice to do a phone call up front. Phone calls are the kiss of death for informational interviews. Always invite them to coffee, and let them propose a call if their schedule doesn't work out.

(and yeah, you never ask for a job - they know why you are talking to them, and if they are looking for someone they'll very quickly agree to coffee and if you make a good impression they'll offer up the opportunity they know of.)
posted by JPD at 9:54 AM on August 11, 2012

Let me be clear - you don't ask them for a job at their firm. You do however always ask a question that is some reformulation of "How should I go about finding a job in your industry and is there anyone specifically you think I should be speaking with, and would you be willing to make an introduction for me. If you aren't, that's fine, this meeting was still incredibly worthwhile for me and thank you for your time"
posted by JPD at 9:58 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

JPD, has that strategy worked for you? I'd be curious. Because when people ask me for offsite meetings "to learn more about the company", I find it clueless and presumptuous, and just say no. And I get those requests constantly. But I am a recruiter at a highly visible company, so perhaps people who don't get those requests all the time would be more inclined to say yes.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:07 AM on August 11, 2012

I changed careers and a lot of it was due to doing info interviews; people did share contacts, names of places that were hiring, etc., but the real info that I was after (and received) was how to get hired at some of the companies and how to present myself as a better person to hire, which I did learn to do through doing this (i.e. words that HR people may look for, alternative job titles search for, the existence of recruiters and how to work with them, the format of the CV/resume,etc etc etc.).

I was worried bothering people and what a friend mentioned to me was something along these lines, which helped to approach people through emails:1) people want to help others by nature, 2) they will help you if they know what you want and it is limited; and 3) people not replying may be busy, etc. and will likely forge you even asked the question.

So I sent out an email pointing out the connection (in your case, you also attended university X), what I was looking for (probably in your case, more information about industry X in DC, including how to break in, and you are looking for a brief meeting in whatever way is most convenient (phone, email, in meeting), for a maximum of (20 minutes, 30 minutes, pick one). To be honest, I usually obtained useful info from all the people who met whether it was email, phone, or in person.

I came with specific questions and would refer to my notes and jotted down relevant info. Sometimes people even reviewed my CV.

Some of the things that I found useful, which may apply to you, OP:
• What is "hot" in your industry in DC right now (would any type of training, seminar,etc., help?)
• How did they get their job and do they have ideas as to other ways to get into a similar type of job? (This is where I learned about recruiters, just taking a writing test, different job titles to search for).
• Are there particular companies that they would recommend that you approach with your level of background?

To be honest I limited the "tell them about myself" stuff. It was in the email (My name is X, we are connected by Y, I have a background in 1,2,3 and would like to learn more about....). But I made it clear up front I was going to ask info...when I read your questions "gently probe" ....go for the info that you would and don't ask for a job. I viewed the whole thing as learning experience to gather the information that I needed to make myself a successful candidate for applying and finding a job.

I post about this all the time, so something here or here may help.

Also, if you are looking for a job in your industry, you may want to google and find a list of all companies in that industry, make a cover letter/Resume and send them out. I got job interviews that way and I get freelance projects now when I do that same approach. YMMV.
posted by Wolfster at 10:15 AM on August 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Well no asking "to learn more about the company" is very lame. My point really is you don't want to prime people to do a phone interview. You want to do in person if you can, phone as a second option.

Also - why would you do an informational meeting with a recruiter unless you were interested in becoming a recruiter? You should always be trying to do them with people in the job/area you are looking for employment.
posted by JPD at 10:26 AM on August 11, 2012

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