In my view, one of the most impactful things you can do when making career choices is to seek advice from relevant experienced people, this is why:
- They will have had to make similar decisions and can help explain why they made the moves they did, allowing you to make more informed choices
- You’re getting new perspectives. They may have seen something that you or others close to you haven’t
- If they’re in the industry you want to go into they’re likely to have inside knowledge you can’t find out easily from research
- Seeking advice can often lead to opportunities you don’t expect (for example, you might meet someone who happens to be looking for help, so you may be able to get work experience)
Some people I speak to worry about networking with more senior people, either out of fear of being rejected or because they think they are punching above their weight. I rationalise making the choice to approach people for advice by asking myself ‘what’s the downside?’. Trying to get new perspectives by meeting people has very little downside. The worst thing that can happen is the people you ask tell you they’re too busy to help. When you do have meetings, even if it doesn’t result in you making a big change to your thinking, you’ve probably still had an interesting chat and have grown your network.
It’s quite common for people to brush off the value of having these conversations and use the excuse that they don’t know anyone or don’t have a good network. I want to give some practical advice for how you can start making these conversations happen even if you don’t have a network.
How to find great people to talk to
The right person to speak to very much depends on what you want to learn about. If you’re a law student and think you want to be a partner at a law firm, your starting point is likely to be recent graduates who have secured roles at law firms that interest you. If you’ve been working for a big corporate in marketing for 5 years and want to move to a small ad agency, you could be trying to speak to people who have made similar moves.
I would always start by thinking through my own network. Do I know anyone who has made a similar decision? This doesn’t have to be direct connections, e.g. you may know a friend’s sister who has relevant experience. If there’s no one in your immediate network, I would recommend using LinkedIn to find interesting people. Start with relevant company pages and check the employees that work there. Is there anyone you have something in common with (e.g. is there anyone that went to the same university as you? Perhaps there’s someone with the same previous employer?)
It’s always worth trying to find a few relevant people and not just one, to increase your chances of getting a response (it’s a numbers game!). Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get a response from everyone. When you’ve had one meeting, you can also ask the people you meet to introduce you to others they know who might be able to help.
How to start the conversation
To give yourself the best chance of success, the initial contact should be as strong as possible. If you have a friend or connection in common, it can help to get an introduction. If you can’t get an introduction, getting the first message right is really important.
It helps not to go in asking for a huge commitment (e.g. ‘I’m looking for a mentor’), as that can put a lot of pressure on the person. Giving someone a chance to respond over email/message shows understanding that you know they’re busy (and you should still get their insights).
Here’s an example of a message that would get me excited to respond (vs. someone that just reached out and said: ‘Hey, can we go for coffee so I can get your advice?’). These kind of messages work particularly well if you make it clear why you’re reaching out specifically to that person (vs. the other similar 50 people on LinkedIn).
Hi Theo, I’ve checked out your website, your new business looks really exciting!
I’m currently in my final year and thinking about what next steps I can take to put me in the best position to start a business in 5 years.
I’m considering going into finance as my first job out of university and would love to get your advice. I’m particularly keen to hear about how your learnings there compared to those you picked up working for a startup.
Would it be possible to meet for a coffee to hear more about your experiences (happy to continue chatting via message if that’s more convenient)? I’d also be happy to give my perspective on what you’re working on and help in any other way I can
Hopefully starting off with this kind of message gets you into a conversation. When you meet, make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to ask and what you hope to learn. There’s no need to prepare a full agenda, as it’s good to see where the conversation goes, but it’s worth preparing a few smart questions.
How to maintain a good relationship with your network
After you’ve met the person, I always like to send a thank you email the same day. If you had a good discussion, it’s valuable to keep the relationship warm going forward. You never know when you might want to go back for advice. I’ve let professional relationships go cold to the point where it feels a little awkward to reach out and ask for advice.
The best way to keep this up is to send your most valuable connections regular updates. This could be as simple as sending someone a brief email once every 6–12 months checking in with how they’re doing and giving them a quick update, for example:
Hi Theo, hope you’re well!
Thanks again for meeting me back in June and for all your advice. How’s your new business going?
I just received an internship offer from [company] for this summer, which I’ve decided to take. I’m hoping this will help me decide if it’s the right move for me after university, but it will be good experience nevertheless!
I’ll let you know how it goes and might want to get your advice on what to do next once I’ve finished.
Building up a network of people you can tap into for advice will pay dividends as you progress thinking about your career choices, the earlier you start the better!
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