Career

10 Tips On Getting Casual Career Advice Over Coffee

Some people are too shy to meet a senior colleague for a chat over coffee, or worry it’s too pushy. But as your career progresses, you’ll find yourself doing more of this informal networking. If your only face-to-face industry contact is at a formal job interview, you’re lagging behind.

Here’s a secret: senior professionals love being asked for their expertise.

“I’ve offered numerous times to talk to younger designers about what they want to do, and where to start,” says Hannah Beveridge, an interior architect and design strategist. “I find it rewarding to help them out and I think they feel like they get some advice from someone who’s been through the same challenges they may be facing.”

Here are some tips to make sure you get great advice over coffee:

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Stop thinking it’s a ‘Work Date’

Don’t set out to dazzle and woo your colleague. You’re here to learn, not to pitch yourself as a new friend, employee or protégé. Approach the meeting as an information-gathering session, like a journalist’s off-the-record interview or a politician’s background briefing.

The conversation may be casual, but your demeanour should still be businesslike. A coffee meeting can unexpectedly turn into a job interview, so dress accordingly.

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Find the right person for the right purpose

You might already have in mind someone you work with, follow on social media, or whose work you respect. Also try searching LinkedIn for a second-degree connection (a colleague-of-a-colleague) and make sure you intro yourself right.

Identify how this person can help you achieve a clear, specific career goal, because they will ask you what you want from the meeting. (Replying, “Um, a job?” is not impressive.) Are they working in a particular organisation or role you aspire to yourself? How does their experience help map where you want to go?

“I feel very much like I am part of a collegial industry,” says TV scriptwriter Peter Mattessi, “so if a younger writer is keen enough to seek me out and ask to meet, I feel it’s part of the job to help build that industry and help them along. Plenty of people were very good to me when I was trying to get started so I try to pay that back down the line a bit.”

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Nail the tone of your request email

Send your senior colleague a short email with a catchy, specific subject line. “Coffee” and “advice” are good words to include prominently. Write warmly but plainly, avoiding flowery language, jargon and exclamation marks! Aim to seem personable but not presumptuous.

If they can’t spare time for a coffee, suggest a phone call instead, or ask their advice on who else to approach. If they haven’t replied within a working week, send a polite follow-up email. But if no reply is forthcoming, don’t keep pestering: quietly move on to someone else. Careful, though: don’t email another person from the same organisation until you’re sure the first person isn’t interested.

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Do your homework

You’re offering an opportunity for your senior colleague to help someone who makes them feel good about what they do. This is where your research comes in. Mention their recent tweets, blog posts, talks or other activities to show you follow and admire their work. Mention your shared contact or any previous interactions you’ve shared. Show you know their background, and point out what you have in common.

This isn’t just fawning. Intellectual property lawyer Alex Farrar, who attended a state school, is particularly willing to meet with young female lawyers from similar backgrounds. “A bit of flattery gets them a long way,” she says.

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Let them take the lead and don’t be late

Accommodate your senior colleague’s schedule: provide your availability but let them decide the time, and don’t complain if it’s earlier or later than you’d prefer. Allow plenty of travel time so you’re not late or flustered at a meeting you asked for. And only reschedule due to an unexpected event such as illness or a family emergency. (Being “swamped with work” just makes you sound disorganised.)

It’s flattering to let your senior colleague order their coffee first, and then say, “I’ll have the same.” But if you don’t want to choke down a drink you obviously hate, at least keep your request simple. Now isn’t the time for fussy When Harry Met Sally-style orders.

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Listen and share

You’re here to learn, so don’t just talk about yourself. Everyone warms to an attentive listener. Pre-prepare some specific questions to show you’re focused on a concrete goal, but you’re not grilling a suspect here. This is a casual conversation, so it’s good to let it flow where it will.

You have more to share than you might think. Because you’re newer to the industry, you can offer fresh insights and innovative ways of communicating, organising and solving problems. And you can recommend interesting articles, books or videos your colleague mightn’t have discovered.

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Take notes

Have your notebook handy before the meeting so you’re not rummaging through your bag in front of your colleague. Write down any promised actions to follow up later – yours and theirs. And note names, trends and industry news that will serve you well in job interviews, when you need to convince an interviewer you know your field.

Speaking of job interviews, your colleague may suggest someone who’s hiring. “If they can’t help directly, get the names of three people who may,” suggests film and social media producer Diana Ward Roark.

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Don’t expect them to hand over their contact list

Nothing puts a senior colleague off more than feeling you’re just pumping them for information. “It can definitely get exhausting when you get someone who wants you to just tell them things or do things for them rather than explain how things work,” says Penelope Goodes, a freelance book editor.

Social policy researcher Natasha Ludowyk agrees. “I wouldn’t ask them to share their skill set for free, but might ask about peripheral things to know. For more junior colleagues I’ve had convos about asking for pay rises, as well as general feedback on their work.”

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Say goodbye gratefully and gracefully

Establish early in the meeting how long your colleague can stay. You can even set an alarm on your phone, to avoid awkward, distracted glances at watches. “Never overstay,” says Diana. “If they hint they need to go, thank them, ask if you can email them with any other questions and let them head off.”

Express gratitude for your colleague’s time, and offer to buy the coffees… but if they insist on paying, give in gracefully. “If I am the senior person I always pay – I figure I have the job so it’s only fair,” says Peter. “And if I’ve requested the meeting I always pay as well, because they’ve given up their time. I pay a lot, it seems.”

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Follow up without pestering

Remember that one coffee doesn’t forge an ongoing mentorship. Send a follow-up email a day or two after the meeting, then let your colleague decide if they want to pursue the connection further. Definitely don’t expect further coffee meetings on request.

Your follow-up email should reiterate your thanks for their generosity, include any info you promised to send them, and gently nudge them for anything they offered. And remember: your senior colleague might well notice your career moves now. So if you’ll cross paths again, make sure you’ve taken their advice on board!


Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She founded online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast, and is author of Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.