Asking for help, and paying it forward

Sometimes networking over coffee can be treacherous…

Especially when immediately after walking up to the table, coffee in hand to introduce yourself to a potentially valuable professional connection, you place down the slightly over filled mug on what turns out to be an exceedingly tippy table, and slop coffee all over the place (though thankfully not on her shoes.) Extremely embarrassed at having made a complete fool out of yourself in front of this person who has taken valuable time out of her day to meet you for coffee, you turn all shades of the reddish end of the color wheel, apology laden effusions tumbling out of your mouth, as you scramble for some napkins and silently curse the table’s apparent inability to fulfill its one and only function.

Yep. Been there.

Like I said, networking can be treacherous.

Thankfully, in my case, the person in question was kind, and laughingly forgave the mishap, eager to throw in her own quips about the table’s inability to be a table. She quickly moved on to the business at hand, and over the course of the next hour, gave me all sorts of valuable advice and suggestions she had gotten when first getting her own business off the ground.

I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of this kind of ‘pay it forward’ equation within the last few weeks. Both experiences have been exceptionally validating and eye opening.

But it occurs to me that there’s sometimes a perception that people further along on their professional road have always just “known” the things they know, and that they would never want to talk to someone who’s early in her own career.

But as both a giver and receiver of the ‘pay it forward’ mentality, I’ve found that perception to be really untrue.

Recently, within the span of a few days, I both helped counsel a graduate student who was struggling with uncertainty about her career path, and had an established professional share her counsel with me when I was feeling uncertain about my own.

The reality is that the professional journey is hard. It’s full of lessons, pitfalls and challenges. And it’s the pay it forward cycle that helps us through those times when we feel totally clueless and lost.

But how do you pay it forward? How do you ask for help? It occurs to me that though at some point, this probably feels fairly natural to most people, there was a time when asking for help, or providing counsel felt foreign.

To that end, here’s are some things I’ve found work well, both when asking for, and in giving counsel.

Ask and ye shall receive

You will be shocked at how many people are willing to say yes to meeting you, even if you’re a total stranger to them. In my experience, most people are willing to say yes. In the last few months I’ve met with 7 degrees of Kevin Bacon level of colleagues, and I’ve been so shocked at how willing complete strangers are to meet, listen, share their wisdom, and brainstorm ideas.

When you’re asking to meet with someone, keep these things in mind:

  1. Be respectful, clear, and BRIEF. The initial email isn’t the time for your life story. Keep it short, and if someone else can make the email intro for you, even better. When you first start asking, start with your networks — friends, family, colleagues, trusted advisors. We ALL have networks, we just might not think of them that way. If that makes you really uncomfortable, start small. Have a couple of conversations where you try out your schpeel where you explain what you want to do, where you want to go, and what you need help on. Your friends will (hopefully) be gentle and help you figure out what you need to polish before you’re ready to reach out outside those immediate connections.
  2. If you can, provide value. It isn’t always apparent what value you might provide to someone who’s further down the road than you are. But most savvy people know that networking is the way the world works and you never know where people are going to end up. (That intern you slighted 10 years ago? Yeah, now they’re the Program Director for that organization your trying to land as a client.) If you present yourself as interested, engaged and willing, most people will see value in sitting down and talk with you for a half an hour, if for no other reason than to build some good will.
  3. People are busy. They might not respond. That doesn’t make them terrible people, and it also doesn’t mean no one is ever going to say yes to you. Most of the time their lack of response is not about you. But if you run into this a lot, revisit your ask — are you asking too much? Are you sharing more than you should? Do you provide value to them?

Be a giver

Just as people gave of their time to meet with you when you were most vulnerable, do the same for others. When friends, friends of friends, or even complete strangers reach out to you, and you think you might have something to offer, say yes to coffee, a phone call, a google hangout, or even just a reply email. It’s amazing how transformative that small act of kindness can be for someone else’s career and life.

When giving your time and advice, keep these things in mind:

  1. Don’t go in expecting anything. Though it would be great for everyone who contacted you to be able to help you with a problem you’re facing, the reality is that’s not always going to happen. You might have people who are willing to help you with something after you’ve helped them, but by and large, you’re doing this to build good will and share your knowledge. (And also because it feels good to help someone else along their journey.) And sure, part of why you say yes to someone is you think there’s a chance they might be helpful to you down the road and that’s a worthwhile time investment.
  2. Have a good memory and be patient. It’s so easy to fall into the “yeah, well it’ll be fine” mentality because that was your experience. You figured it out (probably with a healthy dose of help from others, don’t forget.) It’s easy to see someone else’s problems and frustrations as minuscule in comparison to your own. When meeting with someone, work to empathize, hear where they’re coming from, and try to remember what those times of uncertainty felt like for you. You also need to be patient. Though a solution might seem readily apparent to you, sometimes it takes longer for people to reach their own conclusion, because they’re in it, living it everyday. What you’re suggesting may be way outside their comfort zone. They might need time to get used to a new idea or direction. Be compassionate about that — chances are you were there at some point in your career too.
  3. Be helpful — tangibly if possible. I’ve been blown away by people’s willingness to make email introductions to colleagues, give me tangible suggestions for areas explore, or continue to stay in touch. From the giving side, I’ve found when I can give a little extra time or help, it solidifies the connection, builds good will, and makes it much easier for me to come back and say “hey, would you be willing to do this thing for me?”

At the end of the day, compassion breeds compassion, and that applies to the big scary world of professional networking too. If we’re all a little more focused on paying it forward, it’ll make the professional world better for everyone.

And at the very least, try to treat life’s awkward tippy table situations with some grace and a laugh. Your colleagues will greatly appreciate it.

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