Networking: How to ask for help

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Transition

Sometimes the hardest part of looking for a new job is asking for help.

A coaching client was describing a networking coffee that went nowhere. “I wouldn’t want the manager to say, ‘Oh, I know you, so I’m giving you an interview,” he said. “I’m not looking for a handout.”

He wasn’t actually my coaching client. I occasionally mentor new coaches, listen to a recording of their coaching sessions, and offer them feedback on their coaching skills.

I wrote in my notes: YES, YOU ARE LOOKING FOR A HANDOUT!!!

This theme — not wanting to ask for help and hoping that the person you’re networking with will connect the dots for you — comes up often in my office and makes me speak in all caps with exclamation points.

As I’ve mentioned in this column, I collect what I call Dreadful Questions. These are the deceptively simple questions you know you’re going to get in a networking conversation or a job interview, or when talking to that nice person on the soccer sideline.

Because they are simple questions, they should be a breeze to answer, right? Ha! Wrong! The Six Dreadfuls can make you stammer and stumble over your words, and risk losing confidence because you can’t even answer a simple question.

The solution is to prepare your answers ahead of time — and practice them. Which brings us to the Fourth Dreadful and the buried lede of this week’s column.

The Fourth Dreadful is: “How can I help?”

The person you’re meeting for that networking coffee has to ask you, “How can I help?” and if they don’t, you need to do the asking.

And that is a dreadful prospect for some people. It can be hard to ask for help. As the client in the recording experienced, it can be hard to ask for that interview. But if you don’t, then you’re wasting your time in that networking conversation.

The Fourth Dreadful has a two-part answer:

Part 1: Learn things you don’t know. I tell my coaching clients that it is empirically impossible to know what you don’t know. If you’re looking to make a career or job change, you need new ideas. Companies and organizations you hadn’t thought of; industries and domains that hadn’t occurred to you; roles and responsibilities you’ve never heard of.

If you don’t learn things you didn’t know, you’re kind of stuck doing the things you already know.

Your answer to Dreadful Number Four, Part One sounds something like:

“Given our conversation and what you know about me, where you could you see me adding value in an organization like yours? Where do you see opportunities for growth for someone with my experience and interests?”

Part 2: Get introduced. I like to tell my coaching clients that you just need one person to start a networking adventure. That person can introduce you to one or two people doing interesting work; those people can introduce you to a couple more — and suddenly you have a big network to explore.

But you have to ask for those introductions. Again, if you don’t, you’ve wasted your networking opportunity.

Your answer to Dreadful Number Four, Part Two sounds something like:

“Given the direction I’m exploring, whom can you suggest I talk to as I explore these next steps in my career?”

Note: I coach my clients to avoid yes/no questions in their Fourth Dreadful answers. If you ask, “Do you know anyone who could be helpful?” or worse, “Would you be willing to introduce me to anyone …” it’s too easy to say “No, sorry, can’t think of anyone.”

The Fourth Dreadful comes with variations. In the case of the client on the recording I was listening to, he needs to tell the hiring manager that he is interested in the open role on the manager’s team — otherwise, the manager could assume he’s not.

The answer to Dreadful Number Four, Variation A for that coaching client sounds something like:

“I’ve so enjoyed our conversation. I’ve been thinking about that XYZ role on your team – and after meeting with you, I definitely plan to apply. What advice or feedback can you share with me as I prepare?”

He needs to ask for that handout. Even if it’s hard to.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.