Back when I was in college, I had a lunch meeting with the chief financial officer and founding partner of a hedge fund. I was in my junior or senior year back then and never had any prior relationship with this person. I had merely emailed him out of the blue.
My roommate at the time had told me that she was amazed that I could, without hesitation, email someone so successful and ask to meet them for lunch – and that the person would actually say yes!
I’ve continued this habit of reaching out and meeting with successful people ever since then. And by successful, I mean those who are well-respected or well-recognized in their field. That includes people in senior management, well-known public speakers, and authors of widely read books.
Reaching out to successful people like this makes some people anxious though.
That’s how my roommate had felt when I had met with the hedge fund partner. That would’ve made her self-conscious, she said. She knew it was a smart thing to do, but she had that nagging voice in her head that told her she’d somehow offend or annoy the person.
That voice would ask her, “why would someone so successful want to talk to me?”
It’s that question that keeps people from networking with those who would make all the difference in their career.
So Why Would a Successful Person Meet With Me?
It turns out there's lots of reasons successful people will meet with you.
Reason 1: You Have The Same Passion
People who are successful in any field are usually people brimming with passion for what they do - and there's usually not enough people around them to share that passion with.
Those in a management position often have to maintain a certain distance from their direct reports. Many top performers are disliked by their co-workers, who view them as a competitor. And self-employed people are isolated and usually only talk shop with their clients.
These people may be married or have partners, but those partners may find what they do boring. That means they can't discuss all the fun little nuances of what they do and why they do it.
For all those reasons, successful people often feel isolated from their professional peers and their own personal relationships when it comes to what they love most – their career.
When you reach out to them, you're offering them the chance to really talk about what they love most with someone else who can appreciate it.
Reason 2: People Love Giving Advice
Another reason is that most people love giving advice. That's especially true if it's something they're good at.
I don't remember where I read it, but the desire to influence other people is supposedly one of the strongest motivations in life. More so than money or autonomy.
By reaching out for advice, you're giving them the opportunity to fulfill that very human need.
Reason 3: The Need to "Pay It Forward"
Networking is usually a prerequisite for success. So most successful people networked themselves. Early in their career, they probably reached out to more successful people the same way you are now.
That means they feel somewhat obligated to "pay it forward." They won't find it strange when you randomly email them and ask them to lunch. They had sent many of those same emails themselves and probably still do today.
Reason 4: They Want to Build a Talent Pool For Future Positions
Successful people who are in a position to hire like to network to build a talent pool that they can tap later. This is especially true for data analytics, which is my career field. We're in a growth field and there's a shortage of experienced talent. That means it's important to have a list of experienced or passionate people you can ask to apply when a position needs to be filled.
Why Should I Network With Successful People? (Hint: It's Not About Finding a Job)
As you can see, there's multiple motivations that a successful person would have to network with you. That leads to the next logical question: why should you network with them?
Most people would say to find a job. That's not a bad reason, but if you want to get the most out of networking, I don't suggest making finding a job the primary purpose.
Instead, treat networking as relationship building.
The reason? It'll make you more authentic and make networking more enjoyable for everyone involved.
Many people think of networking as sleazy and inauthentic. My girlfriend, for example, says networking is faking interest in someone in order to get a job from them.
She's not wrong. When you make job hunting your primary networking goal, people will find you far more disingenuous and far less interesting.
However, when you treat networking like you're meeting people who will (hopefully) become future friends, you'll have more fun, make genuine connections, and learn more from the people you meet.
And yes, sometimes you will get a job opportunity from it.
Networking Is Like Dating
Funny enough, networking is a lot like dating. In the same way you don't "make a move" at the start of a first date, you don't ask for a job right at the start of a professional relationship. You go out for a casual coffee or lunch, determine how much chemistry you have, and escalate things when it feels natural.
Sometimes the people you network with will want to move quickly and ask you to interview for a job. Other times, it's a nice get-to-know you and they'll simply tell you to keep in touch. And sometimes, just like dating, you'll never speak to each other again. (Ghosting, sadly, is just as common in networking as it is in dating.)
So How Do I Find Successful People to Network With?
The best ways to find successful people to network with are:
Public speaking events
Blogs / books
These events and channels include both professional top-performers and those in leadership positions (mid-level and senior). The great thing about the people who produce this content is that they usually want to hear from you. It takes a lot of work to produce any content, which means that they want to hear positive feedback from anyone who enjoyed it.
What that means for you is that you have an easy "in" with these people. Next time you read, hear, or see content you find interesting, send that person an email and ask them to coffee or lunch.
How Do I Phrase My Opening Email / LinkedIn Message?
It's important that you make a good impression with your opening email or LinkedIn message. The way you phrase it can make you sound desperate, rude, demanding, or entitled.
If you already spoke with them in person at the networking event, you want to remind them of that. Provide them a key detail about yourself that they might remember. And then briefly explain what inspired you to reach out to them.
Here's an example of an email you could send:
I wanted to ask if you’d be interested in meeting for coffee or lunch sometime in the next few weeks?
We had met at the R User Group a few months ago. I was the guy from Widget Company who asked you about the bnlearn package. I had to leave early and didn’t get a chance to speak with you as long as I wanted, but wanted to chat more.
This would be a friendly lunch without any expectations from you. I’m just trying to get to know more people in the data science community since I’m wanting to refocus my career towards data science and statistical programming. The work your company does sounds interesting.
If you’re not interested, no worries and have a nice day!
What Do We Talk About?
I once spoke with a CEO who bemoaned the fact that his sales team would simply read off their prepared questions on a sales call like a script. It didn't sound natural, he said. It sounded like they were "checking a box" in terms of conversation.
Those prepared questions were meant to be a template, he thought. They were meant to inspire a conversation – not replace it!
You don't want to be like those sales people when you meet with a successful person.
It's okay to write a list of questions ahead of time, which helps get your head in the game, but most people enjoy real conversations – not a Q&A session.
You'll find though that even if you do write down your questions ahead of time, you'll hardly ever read them. I never did. Usually more interesting topics will come up.
You Really Only Need One Question to Start a Conversation Anyways
My best advice is to think of one question to "get the conversation going." Make sure it's not a yes / no question. You can have a few backup questions in case of an awkward silence, but you probably won't need them.
As they answer your first question, listen closely. They'll typically mention little details. As they do, pick out the ones you find interesting and ask them to elaborate. Doing this builds on the conversation naturally.
To help determine that starter topic, I always advise reading up on the person you're meeting. Look at their resume on LinkedIn. If they've written articles or given talks, go ahead and review them to get an idea of what this person likes to focus on.
My Favorite Conversation Topic: What Would You Change?
I learned long ago that every top-performing professional has that one topic they can't stop complaining about. It's usually something they've devoted a lot of time to fixing within their organization. If you find out what that topic is, you won't have a dull conversation.
That is more or less the interview strategy for my book and articles. I seldom write out any questions ahead of time. I would usually just ask upfront what thing they would change most about the data science profession. The answers were always highly educational and things I never would've considered. Some actually made me far better at my job.
The other benefit to focusing on this topic is that it highlights possible ways you can deliver value to these individuals. It's a natural way to find companies that align with your strengths.
My career strategy, for example, has always centered on taking the complicated (usually data analysis) and making it easy-to-understand to normal people. Not every person I network with wants or needs someone like that. But a few people have! Employers with client facing roles are always the most interested in hiring me!
That leads cleanly into my next point, which is…
Find a Good Way to Describe Yourself and Your Career Goals
Even though I said you shouldn't make job hunting your primary networking goal, it's still something you probably want. The good news is, if you do things right, the jobs will find their way towards you.
And best of all – they'll be the types of jobs you want.
The only thing you have to do is get really good at describing your career goals in a short, memorable way. People often call this the "elevator pitch."
The elevator pitch could be something like, "I want to be a data scientist who works on public policy data" or "I want to build data visualizations that allow more self-service analyses."
When you do that, your name will naturally come to people's minds whenever there's a position that overlaps with your goals.
You Can Mention You're Looking for a Job, But Don't Outright Ask For One
As I've said, networking is to build relationships – not to ask for a job. It's more enjoyable for everyone involved when you treat it that way.
That being said, there's nothing wrong with letting people know you're looking for a job. You can be direct and ask "Are you guys hiring?" after you meet them. Or you can say something like, "I am open to new opportunities."
Remember: All They Can Do Is Say No
I had explained at the start of this article that my roommate had that nagging voice in her head that asked, "why would these people want to talk to me?"
I often ask myself that same question before reaching out to successful people. That nagging voice still occasionally shows up and tells me I'm somehow overstepping my bounds.
But then I repeat the best advice I ever heard:
Remember, all they can do is say no.
While it's not always fun to hear the word no, it's usually the worst thing that could happen in networking. And hardly anyone has ever told me no when I reached out to them. The vast majority said yes.