I’ve lost count of how many times I have been asked, “How do I approach (insert name)? What do I say?”
My answer is this...
First: Get clear on the ONE QUESTION you want to ask.
Second: Quite simply reach out and ask the question.
This first element, the ONE question, seems to be well and truly hidden under Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. So why is it so important?
Quite simply because time is a scarce resource and when we are in the driving seat of reaching out and building a network we absolutely have to respect other people’s time.
Sounds simple right?
And yet how often do we reach out with a harmless ‘Can I meet you for coffee?’.
How often have you, yourself, been at the receiving end of that call, email or LinkedIn message?
In our information-drenched, 24/7 workplaces, where the demands on our time personally and professionally are never ending, time itself has become an invaluable and increasingly scarce resource. "Busy" has become the new status update and yet, despite this, we all seem to love to add to other’s time pressure with the infamous statement - “Can I catch up for a coffee with you?”
“Yeah of course,” is my usual response.
“What would you like to talk about?” I ask.
Cue rolling tumbleweed and crickets.
Here’s the thing. When you want to reach out and connect with someone take responsibility and ensure you are respectful of the other person's invaluable time. Calling someone and asking if you can ‘pick their brains over coffee’ is not connecting. Neither is calling people and asking them to be part of your network. And sending a LinkedIn request or email with a lot of questions — well, that is actually an abuse of the recipient’s time. It’s like having a meeting with no agenda (mind you there’s a few of those happening too!)
If you really value someone’s opinion and advice then invest your time first to get clear on what help you need. Get specific in your request and I guarantee most people will be willing to help and if they can’t they are very likely to respond with an explanation or even introduce you to someone who would be even better at helping with said advice.
As opposed to ‘Can I meet you for a coffee?’ (which is a sure-fire sign that you’re going to chew up their precious time), why not get more specific with, say, ‘I'd like to chat with you about the three key things you did to grow your career to becoming a Partner’ or ‘I’m looking to expand into China and noticed you had managed to do so successfully. I’d really appreciate it if you could share your three key insights’ or ‘I’ve been following you on social media and love what you are doing, what is the one key tip you would share?”
Show you are interested. Show you care. Show that you have invested your own time thinking about the key question or piece of advice you want to ask. Show that you are respectful of any precious time a future connection gifts you.
Then, when you finally connect, be present and ask your one question. Listen to what they are saying, engage in conversation. Take notes, gather intelligence, be diligent, commit to taking action and make sure to say thank you. You could even follow up with a thank you (a hand written note is remembered) and state the action you will be taking immediately. The point is you are taking the lead. I realise this is common sense, but you would not believe how many people seem to forget this basic etiquette. Remember you led to the original conversation, which was the catalyst for opportunity and opened the possibility of forming a longer-term relationship.
I have been very deliberate in building my network. When I have identified a gap I’ve found someone I respect and emailed them to connect. Most people want to help.
Usually I start with one specific need or question and then the conversation naturally expands. It’s about respecting the other person’s time, being clear with one question at a time and always providing value back.
In the early days of my own career I knew I needed to find someone who could fast-track my transition from a corporate salaried position to an entrepreneurial space that was commercially viable and smart. I explored who was already doing what I wanted to do — people who were building practices and selling their thought leadership and expertise — and asked them to recommend who I should meet. As a result of one of these focused conversations, my mentor and now Thought Leaders business partner and teacher became Matt Church (if you are interested in the advice given check out Thought Leaders Business School).
It really is that easy.
Own it. Be curious. Be brave. Reach out — and don’t forget to expect the unexpected.
Your ONE question absolutely matters. As the Irish poet, James Stephens said,
“We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered, we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell.”