Just the word “networking” conjures an image of connecting superficially with the not-so-secret agenda of getting something from the other person. So many leaders have told me, “I hate networking because I never feel like I know what to talk about. I’m just bothering the other person and taking their time for no reason.”
Yet most people acknowledge that a strong professional network is crucial for success. Inside your company it’s requisite for promotions and to get things done. Externally it’s the best way to find a new job at the executive level.
To make networking easier, begin by shifting your mindset about it. At its core, networking involves building a relationship with someone by creating value together. Sometimes the value is for them, sometimes it’s for you. And over the long term, in a great business relationship you’ll both benefit tremendously.
I’ve noticed that very senior stakeholders are more responsive to a request for a meeting if there is clear, specific value being requested, or offered. That’s because people—and executives especially—want to use their time in value-creating ways. Consider these different emails to ask for a meeting with a Senior Vice President of Engineering at a big company:
(1) Hi, I’m reaching out to see if you would like to have coffee? It would be great to get acquainted and I’m sure I could learn a lot from you. Let me tell you a little more about myself and what I’m up to (several paragraphs follow).
(2) Hi, my team has been collaborating with your org for the past 12 months, and I’d like to share a few observations that might help both teams work more effectively together.
(3) Hi, I’m leading a growing engineering organization in another division, now approaching 500 people. I’m finding it especially challenging to stay connected with so many engineers, and I’m worried about getting further from the technical work. I’d love to pick your brain on those topics if you’re willing.
In many companies, option (1) will be ignored. It’s too long for a senior executive to read, and the value proposition isn’t clear. You can’t tell what specific value is being asked for. It feels like a meeting that could end up wasting time.
Option (2) is better, as clear value is being offered. But the value may not be uniquely for the SVP, and could be captured by someone else. My guess is the SVP will delegate this request down a level.
Option (3) is the best of the three, because very specific value is being requested, and the SVP is the ideal one to provide it. It has a higher chance of getting a meeting.
Some rules of thumb when requesting a meeting:
Strategize first. Who is this person and what are their core interests? Put yourself in their shoes. What will reach them? There is no generic approach that always works. Instead, understand your audience and think deeply about what will work.
Ask for specific value. It may seem counterintuitive to ask for specific help, as it may feel like imposing more. But that’s just the point—a vague request doesn’t let them evaluate whether it’s worthwhile. So think about what you need, and how they can really help. Just use some filters: I don’t recommend “let’s meet so you’ll support my promotion later.” You need a legitimate business reason.
Or offer specific value. If you have something of real value, don’t be shy. One of my best multi-year coaching engagements began by offering a CEO to help think through a problem that was really important to him—with no strings attached.
Be brief—especially with senior executives. You have to work harder to get the communication very brief—but it’s worth it! Brevity and clarity let you concentrate more value in less space. By coming right to the point, you prove you won’t waste their time.
Don’t apologize or lower your status. Avoid “I know you are really busy, but…” “I’m sorry to ask for your time,” or my least favorite of all, “Your time is valuable.” Yes, everyone’s time is valuable, including yours! Don’t put yourself on a lower status level in your communication, even if you’re on a lower organizational level.
Want to explore the topic more? Check out:
Secrets of Successful Female Networkers.