If you’re still asking “Can I pick your brain?” you’re doing it wrong. Networking today thrives on exchanges of favors that energize rather than drain both giver and taker.
Networking has evolved. Technology and social media have made it easier and faster to build a constellation of professional contacts, and in recent years, we’ve seen a powerful trend away from chilly business interactions and toward connections that feel genuine and warm, more like the relationships you maintain in your personal life. One thing that hasn’t changed? Reaching out to ask someone for a professional favor can still feel awkward, and being asked for help can often become overwhelming. Here are some smart tips to make connection-seeking easier, and more productive, for both sides of the equation.
IF YOU’RE SEEKING HELP
- Focus your request: We’ve all been guilty of starting an email with some version of “I’m sorry to bother you...” but Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, says it’s far more effective to ditch the apology and craft an “ask” that excites the receiver and represents a good use of their time and resources. Even better, Grant told Jocelyn K. Glei, host of the podcast Hurry Slowly, is offering a brief explanation of why you chose this particular person to reach out. “The moment you tailor the request to me,” Grant explains, “you’ve convinced me I’m in a position to provide unique help, as opposed to being one of a thousand people who could fulfill this request.”
- Be interesting, memorable or funny: Paying close attention to social media can help you find a personal way in—one that no one else is likely to use. Spanx founder Sara Blakely has shared via Instagram more than once that she really really loves Cheez-Its. She says the snack crackers ease her fear of flying. Not long ago, when one savvy networker handed Blakely a bag of Cheez-Its with her business card taped to the back, Blakely posted the photo, and the tactic, online. “This was clever,” Blakely wrote. “She had clearly done her research, and yes I will be keeping this card.”
- Don’t be too humble: Yes, you’re asking for help from someone who has the power to provide it, but keep in mind that, presumably, this person has worked hard to earn a position of influence. By asking for their help, you’re confirming that they’ve achieved that position; sharing what they’ve learned with you, and others, ensures they maintain it. By treating your ask as if you and your target are professional equals, you let them know that you’re willing—and able—to reciprocate in the near future. “Nobody likes a needy person,” says Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You to be Rich. “But if you act like you don't really need your favor granted, you're more likely to get what you want.”
IF YOU’RE ASKED FOR HELP
- Master the five-minute favor: The early days of Silicon Valley had none of the established networking structures enjoyed by legacy corporations. Trust had to be built, and connections made, as rapidly as the tech sector was growing. So entrepreneur Adam Rifkin (PandaWhale, KnowNow, Renkoo) coined the term five-minute favor, which is exactly what it sounds like—taking five minutes out of your schedule to introduce two people via email, offer thoughtful feedback on a prototype or post an endorsement to LinkedIn. Anyone can do this, from honchos to interns. “Doing one five-minute favor every day [instills a habit] that benefits more than just the recipient,” writes Forbes blogger Kerre Anderson. “When enough people do this, those people become a tight-knit community.”
- If the request is too big, offer something else: An elementary school librarian in Delaware recently asked the actor Henry Winkler, via Twitter, if he would consider visiting her students. “I can’t come there now,” replied Winkler, who has also co-authored a series of children’s novels, “but tell the kids, no matter how difficult school may be for some of them, it has NOTHING to do with how brilliant they are.” See what he did there? Rather than shut down the (admittedly ambitious) request, he offered a pearl of wisdom, an affirmation that still felt generous and tailored to the asker. Winkler probably didn’t recognize his response as a variation of the well-known rejection-then-retreat principle, but one simple way you can mimic it is to maintain a file of career resources you’ve found to be helpful—titles of books, links to articles or TED talks— that you can quickly send to someone to signal that you’re inclined to help but don’t have bandwidth for a deep dive.
- Be generous, not selfless: “The effort you invest in helping other people solve their problems sometimes gives you new ideas for how to tackle your own,” says Grant, the Wharton professor and bestselling author. And while the benefits of paying it forward are well-documented, there can be serious consequences to constantly helping your colleagues without setting boundaries. Those who overcommit can lose sight of their own career goals and are at high risk for generosity burnout, says Grant. “Being an effective giver isn’t about dropping everything every time for every person,” Grant and his coauthor Reb Rebele wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “It’s about making sure that the benefits of helping others outweigh the costs to you.”
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