Networking in 2016: Stop Asking People to Coffee

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 code, 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 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 light bulb 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 for 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.)

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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:

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.