The networking process, properly executed, proceeds primarily through a series of information and referral meetings. Information refers to the premise of the meeting, which is to exchange information and obtain advice—not, ostensibly, to interview for a specific job.
By defusing the meeting in this way, you make it much easier for people to agree to meet with you. Referral signifies the several referrals you are likely to receive from such a meeting. These referrals will be to other people with whom you can discuss your career objectives, qualifications, and your own and the other person’s insights, and from whom you can obtain still more referrals. If you pursue all these referrals and continue to conduct meetings where you make a positive impression, you will soon build a sizable network.
Your contacts’ purposes in meeting with you, even though they would have turned down a direct request for an interview, may include any of the following:
• They are, in fact, looking for talent but have not yet shaped a specific job description and are therefore not ready to conduct formal interviews.
• They are pleased with the compliments you paid them in your approach letter and are happy to provide you with career advice.
• They do have the kind of knowledge you are seeking and are glad to share it.
• They are intrigued by the homework you have done and think that your research and fresh viewpoint may be worth their attention.
• They respect the person who referred you and consequently feel that you must be worth meeting.
While information and referral meetings are less formal than interviews, it’s helpful to have a structure in mind when planning and conducting a meeting.
The following simple structure is effective:
1. Opening comments.
2. Defining the purpose of the discussion.
3. Acknowledgment of the other person’s qualifications.
4. Brief self-presentation.
5. Main discussion (questions, review of your ideas, advice, etc.)
6. Referrals to other resources
7. Statement of appreciation and follow-up actions to be taken.
Opening comments are the remarks that get you started in your conversation—small talk, essentially. With a friend (an A contact), all you need is a transitional sentence from whatever you were discussing up to this point, such as:
“Sue, I don’t know whether I’ve told you this, but I’m developing a job campaign, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.”
“Manoj, you’ve done so well at Accenture; I’m wondering if you would share some thoughts on job hunting with me.”
When you’re meeting with someone less well known to you, such as a B or C contact, you should open with some get-acquainted remarks such as “I’ve been looking forward to this meeting, and I certainly appreciate your taking time out of your busy schedule.”
You don’t want this chit-chat to go on and on—a few minutes, maximum. Its purpose is simply to get the conversation flowing in the right direction.
Purpose of the Discussion
Next you should briefly state why you have started the discussion or arranged the meeting:
“I have a few questions about the strategy I’m following in searching for a job in international trade.”
“I’ve been doing some research on acquisitions and mergers in the health care field and would like to hear your thoughts about what I’m finding and what it might mean for my own career planning.”
“I’ve had a number of interviews for positions in corporate finance, but so far just one solid offer. I’m interested in your opinion about the offer, as well as whether I can reasonably expect to do better if I stay on the track I’ve been following.”
“I’m really excited about e-commerce and about the opportunities it seems to offer for a person strong in both business and creative. I just need some advice on where to focus.”
You don’t need to go into much detail at this point. Just give a general idea of what you want to talk about.
1. You asked for an information meeting—don’t try to convert it into an interview. If you do, you may be shown the door rather quickly. Stick with the original premise of the meeting. If an opportunity exists, it will come up later in the conversation.
2. Do not state your interest in obtaining referrals as a primary goal. It’s okay to say you would also like to learn about other resources that might be helpful. But a blatant request for referrals at this stage, before the meeting is really underway, won’t give you an easy shortcut to your contact’s Rolodex.
Acknowledgment of the Contact’s Qualifications
A simple statement will suffice to both please the person you are seeing and show that the person’s knowledge and experience really could be helpful to you. You might say something like:
“Karishma, you’ve always given me such good advice; I feel like you’re just the person to talk to now.”
“Your experience in dealing with corporate finance led me to seek your help in evaluating my experience and figuring out how I should present it.”
“Tanmay told me you’re probably the single best person I could talk with about my research.”
Say just enough, no more. You don’t want to embarrass the other person or set off the need for a host of disclaimers. The other person will probably respond to your well-phrased acknowledgment with a statement like, “I’ll be glad to help if I can.”
Sonal Aurora is director and co- founder of Perfman HR.