Don’t waste everyone’s time: Be direct and specific when making plans.
A few years ago, I emailed a meeting request to a journalist for “The Financial Times” in New York I had long admired. She was an immigrant woman of color who had carved a niche not only as a great writer, but also as a leader in the business of news.
Since I was based in Seattle, I asked for a phone call to “connect over mutual interests.” After weeks of wrangling dates with her secretary, we found a convenient time to chat. On the phone, she cut right to the chase by asking: “How exactly can I help you?”
I’m ashamed to say, I had no answer. My hope was to get advice from her at a time I was struggling to plan my next career move. Very quickly it became apparent that I was wasting her time, and in hindsight, I was! It was a wasted opportunity — we weren’t friends for her to counsel me through a career transition. I should have pointedly and specifically laid out what I needed and how she could help me — assuming she was willing, since she had made the time to speak with me. It was a hard-won lesson and someday I hope to apologize to her face to face.
Lately, I find myself on the receiving end of similar email requests to meet for coffee or chat on the phone. Often, there’s no agenda and the time spent ends up being unproductive for everyone. The person who reaches out often wants to just talk through their career without any specific “ask,” other than how meeting me would be of service to them. Everyone loses; I come away frustrated because I’ve spent time away from work and family, and the other person doesn’t really get much tangible help from me.
So here’s my advice on how to get the most out of a professional coffee meeting.
Write a specific message. In your email (or LinkedIn message), be specific about what you want. This will create an agenda for your coffee meeting. Be honest about what you’re looking for and how that person can help. “I’m looking for a job in the technology industry and would love your advice on how to break in and perhaps get a job at your company.” I promise you, being forward in this regard is the best way to go. The more busy the person is, the more they’ll appreciate this — for some people of influence, your “ask” could be easily accommodated by an email introduction they could make. Avoid, at all costs, vague requests for coffee that center around “mutual interests” and “potential for collaboration.”
Get straight to the point. Once you have secured your meeting, be mindful of the other person’s time. Be clear about what you’re looking for — refer to the message you sent them — and show you have prepared for the meeting. I’m always surprised when people request to meet me and then proceed to ask, “So what exactly do you do?”
Offer to pay for coffee. If someone is taking time to meet you unsolicited and you’re asking them for help, the least you can do is buy. I have eschewed the free coffee in my office and spent over $200 in the last year on coffee meetings where I have dished out advice or help, with no benefit to me.
Follow up. If the other person has offered to introduce you to someone or review your résumé, it’s your job to follow up with them post-meeting.
I’ve found that it’s women who frequently say yes to these meetings – I’ve written previously about saying “no” as a woman in the workplace.
So if you want to support women in the workplace – no matter your gender – do keep these tips in mind the next time you request an unsolicited meeting with one. I’ve found that men are much more comfortable ignoring or turning down vague requests for many reasons, but especially because they don’t face the negative consequences of being considered unlikeable if they decline.