Reader: I'm an attorney with a specialized practice. I initially entered the job market during the Great Recession, and because I remember how stressful and frustrating finding a job was, I've tried to be open to the growing number of networking requests I receive. My question: Can you provide some advice for screening out "bad" networking requests?
Case in point: I met a law student recently, at his request, for coffee. From the start, it seemed clear that he was looking for me to "run the meeting." After I didn't take the lead, he began asking questions that made me feel like he was interviewing me for a high school newspaper. I wrapped up the encounter as quickly as I could, but that hour was blown.
New professionals are told to "network" with no real concept of what that means, and they have the ability to ping any number of prospective contacts through email, social media, etc. I'm glad to meet with people for whom I could be an actual resource, but I have no interest in wasting my time. My recent policy has been to intentionally "drop the ball" in email exchanges to see if the other person re-initiates contact.
Karla: An hour of pro bono face time is a generous investment in a stranger’s career — and, as you’ve seen, a risky one if you’re sinking effort into someone who lacks initiative. It’s admirable to want to pay your success forward, but you have to earn a living, too.
Letting email communications lapse seems like a simple enough way to sort the wheat from the weevils — but by that time, you may already have wasted time communicating with them. Also, you might end up discouraging networkers who are motivated and talented but too polite to pester a busy professional who seems to have lost interest.
Here are some tips to streamline your screening process before you commit to coffee:
Start by assembling a “goody bag” of ready-made resources — links to blogs, social media groups or professional associations in your field — if you’re worried about sending anyone away empty-handed.
One quick way to learn about people is to have them tell you about themselves. On LinkedIn, for example, I’ll ask prospective contacts whom I haven’t actually met or corresponded with to include a brief message identifying themselves. Is this person an out-of-state co-worker, a fellow cat enthusiast, a reader or just someone who likes collecting profiles with pictures of smiling women?
You could use a similar tack. Ask your contacts about themselves, and pay attention to what they do and don’t say, and how they do or don’t say it: “Tell me about what you’re studying.” “What’s your favorite course so far?”
Then, have them tell you about you: “What led you to contact me?” That second question may come across as self-serving, but the response can tell you a lot. Contacts who reply, “Your recent guest blog on BlawDBlaw.com caught my attention” or “Exotic animal import law intrigues me, and you’re one of the few lawyers I’ve seen who specializes in it,” are probably worth meeting for coffee. “You were in my first page of Google hits”? The pre-assembled goody bag of career resources makes a lovely parting gift.