Your Next Move: Are You Asking the Wrong People the Wrong Things?

mm Russ Finkelstein

I speak to many professionals who are unhappy and unfulfilled by their work, but at a loss for how to pivot.

So I’m writing this post for the 70% of Americans who might be considering setting up a professional coffee or two to help them get clarity on the overall direction their careers might take in the coming months and years. 

The way people most often approach networking makes me think of the delightful expression of “working smart, not hard.” You don’t get prizes for having 100 networking coffees last month. In fact, done wrong and you may have irritated those you met and made them less likely to respond to your requests in the future. They may have even spread the word to others that you weren’t worth their time.

If networking for clarity is ahead of you, here’s how to avoid wasting your time.

Pick The Right People

 When you think about the last networking conversation you had, ask yourself: Did the person you were talking with say, “You will be successful in whatever you do?” Or perhaps, “I know it will all work out?” Or even, “Things happen for a reason?”

If so, you likely weren’t networking. You were spending time commiserating with a supportive professional friend, partner or family member. 

When you’re networking for clarity, the goal of a good conversation is to talk with somebody who is going to challenge and inform you, and those kinds of people are often a little more experienced professionally, and a little harder to commiserate with if they’d take a few moments to sit down with you.

Many people burn out the same small sphere of folks when they’re networking, perhaps choosing the same people over and over. But it’s important to filter your targets aggressively for this kind of “standing.” Here’s what you’re looking for:

  • Someone who really understands the space(s) you’re aspiring to work in. That means they may be a lot more experienced than you are, or in a completely different field than you know now.
  • Someone you can hear, not because they speak loudly, but because you don’t think they have an obvious agenda for giving you a certain kind of advice. Again, this is where talking to your romantic partner, for example, falls down as “networking,” because often, when you express career dissatisfaction, that person may just be nervous that you’re about to quit your job and offer “advice” designed to calm you down or not upset their life.
  • Someone you think is thoughtful and listens well.
  • Overall, you want people whose advice you won’t dismiss because you think they have an agenda, or because you have some collective baggage. You might occasionally also consider networking with the following kinds of people:
  • Someone who has known you for a long time and has heard you discuss your professional peaks and valleys. These are most often long-time friends or family who can offer perspective when you have gathered career information.
  • Someone you think of as a role model.
  • Someone outside your professional space completely, but of great vision. They may not have knowledge of your field, but you want their wisdom.

Once you’ve decided on your networking for clarity targets, it’s time to introduce yourself and ask for a meeting.

Say The Right Things

  • When you introduce yourself, you need to be brief, authentic, establish credibility, be memorable, and make a specific ask. “Hi, Pat. I’m Russ, and we met briefly at or through X. I’m writing because I’m at a career crossroads and I’m intrigued by the work you do. I’ve been doing Y for Z time, but realize I’m now drawn to A. Might you have time for a 30-minute coffee over the coming weeks to sit with me and share lessons learned? I’d buy, of course. Thanks for considering the request.”
  • Develop a question set before you sit down based on what matters to you or your criteria. For example, if work-life balance matters to you because you need to be available to your children, ask the person how they handle it and overall what the field is like, if you don’t want to work evenings, weekends or travel. As you go through the process of getting clear about your criteria, determine the questions related to the fields or roles that intrigue you, and ask. You can only understand if you ask.
  • In the conversation, get to know what challenges they face professionally. Bonus points if you can help them solve some challenges through your expertise or connections.
  • Show appreciation at every stage for the time they’re offering you. Send an email the next day reiterating any open business, and update them on your career and life over the coming months. Be on the lookout for ways you can help them, and follow up.

When networking for clarity, choose the right people, and say the right things. Or, put another way, know what questions you need answered and ask those capable of offering a useful response.

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.

 Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >