This is not meant to be a humble brag or even a brag, but I'm at a place in my career where I get asked for a lot of coffees either to network their way into a job or find connections or contacts that people otherwise would not have access to. It's actually a great thing as I feel that I'm giving back to people. I myself had to go for a lot of coffees before I got to the place I got to and I would like to think that whatever success I achieve is by standing on others' shoulders.
I remember when I first started asking people for coffees, I really had no idea what to do or what to ask. I would go in with a bit of a plan of attack, but then it would crumple as soon as I was having the coffee. It was difficult to ask questions, listen intently, figure out a train of thought and understand where I might be able to add value in some way. I like to think of coffees as one that mutually benefits both parties, so even early on when I may not have had a lot to offer, I wanted to see if there was something that I could offer.
Nowadays, and I don't mean to be rude to anyone that contacts me for a coffee, but I want to make sure that we are both getting the most out of the coffees. When I first started out in consulting, I asked my partner for a coffee and I thought we could just have an informal conversation. After our coffee, he said that the next time that I ask him for a coffee, I should have a plan of attack and a general strategy for what questions and answers I was looking for. At the time, I thought this was quite rude, after all, I had just started in consulting and was trying to find my way around. After, I can see that he had a point. His time was valuable, but also, my time was valuable and by having a plan of attack would help make the coffee more effective for the both of us. So, with that said, here are ten things that I like to do to make networking coffees more effective:
Research ahead of time
Regardless of whether I am having a coffee or asking for a coffee, I like to do a bit of research on LinkedIn and other sites to see what that person is up to. I want to understand their background and understanding this means that I can provide answers that may be better suited to their situation or context. I also have a good idea of either what questions to ask or what advice to draw on that may resonate with that person better.
Ask questions prior to the coffee
One student contacted me asking for a coffee. His e-mail was a general e-mail and I didn't want to go into the coffee where he was just asking me general questions that anybody could find on the internet. Politely, I asked him a few questions to help him clarify his thinking. I wanted to understand what service lines he was interested in. Whether he saw specific positions on the job site that he was thinking about applying to. And I wanted to see if he had talked to others already. All of these questions would help me understand how I could help him the best. I didn't want to direct him to people that he had already talked to. I didn't think that answering generic questions that a Google search could find would help. I know general things about the other service lines, but otherwise would have to direct him to contacts I had in the other service lines.
Really, really listen
This is a skill that I'm practicing, and I have to say it is a very hard skill to develop. I'm starting to dig through "You're not listening" by Kate Murphy and realize that listening is a skill that we all sorely need, but lack in this day and age of constant notifications and mobile technologies. I thought that I was a good listener, but in a lot of conversations, I am waiting for the other person to finish so that I can chime in OR I am trying to think of what to say next. Both of these things takes away my attention (and your attention if you are doing the same thing) away from the other person. The focus is not on that person and often, they can tell. Worse is when you are on your smartphone or your smartphone is on the table next to you. It's a subtle signal to the person you are conversing with that at a moment's notice, your smartphone could drag you away from them.
How do you really listen to someone? Well, you have to really focus, not just on the words that the other person is saying, but on how they are saying it. Are they saying that work is a drag with a sigh or a frown? Are they saying that their wife is doing good, but with a bit of a worried look on his face? All of these add up to a story and you really want to ask questions to elicit the real story. Second, you have to be completely okay not knowing what to say next after the person finishes their side of the conversation. Honestly, this is something that can be really difficult for me, but having complete focus really helps me to listen in on the nuances of how the other person is speaking.
Get to the coffees early
I'm a habitually tardy person so getting their late means that I am frustrated, in a rush and not in my best mood to give or solicit advice. I get their early because of traffic or of other things and I'll often bring a book with me, which, as a plus, means I get in some reading as well. It also helps me to scope out the place, find a good spot to sit at and go to the washroom if needed.
Summarize the conversation with action items and takeaways
In most of my coffees, there are takeaways and action items that both sides of the conversation have. I usually have some contacts that I will be directing the individual to for further conversations. The other side is either providing me with an e-mail address, their resume or information. At the end of the coffee, I'll summarize and make sure that I understand everything that I am taking away and the other person is going to do.
Doing these five things helps make the coffees much more effective and not only do I get more out of the coffees, I feel that those that contact me for coffees get more out of it too. Win win!