Networking is tricky business, and when you’re looking for career advice from a bonafide industry expert, it’s even harder. First, there’s the matter of working up the courage to contact the person and ask for a favor. Then, there’s the favor itself: How do you take advantage of someone’s generosity without becoming what Margaret Morford — head of the consulting firm HR Edge and author of The Hidden Language of Business — calls a “networking leech?”
In a terrific New York Times post titled “How Not to Be a Networking Leech: Tips for Seeking Professional Advice,” Morford shares some great advice for, well, asking for advice. Below is a quick summary of eight of her best suggestions.
1. Pick a Convenient Time and Place — You’re asking for a favor here, so be willing to meet the person someplace that’s good for them. If you’re a morning person, but he or she isn’t, be willing to schedule something in the afternoon or evening.
2. Treat for Eats/Drinks — If you’re looking for a new job and feeling strapped for cash, suggest you simply meet for coffee. If your wallet’s a little fatter, propose drinks or a meal. Either way, Morford says, thank the other person for the huge favor of sharing their precious time and sage-like wisdom by picking up the check.
3. Come with Questions — This goes back to the time thing. If you’re asking someone to block out a segment of their busy schedule to meet with you, you’d better know what you plan on asking. No one wants to sit through a bunch of rambling — no matter how good that free coffee is!
4. Don’t Question Their Advice — Even if you suspect the things the other person is talking about won’t apply to you or your career, keep on listening and decide later whether to take the advice. There’s no sense in sitting there and arguing with the person or explaining why their tips won’t work for you.
5. Offer to Reciprocate — Don’t leave the meet-up before asking if there’s anything you can in return. You might not have the same industry clout or network of professional connections the other person does, but as Morford says, you can at least write a LinkedIn recommendation.
6. Double-Down on the Gratitude — After that sincere “thanks” at the end of your meeting, send a handwritten follow-up note. An email won’t cut it.
7. Don’t Refer Others — Just because someone helps you, it doesn’t mean he or she is interested in doing likewise for every Tom, Dick, and Jane with similar career questions. As such, Morford says, you should never give out someone’s contact info and tell others it’s OK to reach out for assistance.
8. Pay It Forward — One way to avoid becoming a “parasite,” to borrow another word from Morford’s article, is to make it a priority to help others. Take a few moments each week to think about all the people you’ve helped, and if the list isn’t super long, take steps to change that. What comes around goes around.