Networking is probably the single best way to push your career forward, but a lot of young people seem to stumble in this process. It's a skill rarely taught in school and there aren't many ways to figure it out except by jumping in, making a few mistakes, and then learning from them. Amy Francetic, who as the CEO of Clean Energy Trust with 20 years of corporate, startup and nonprofit experience, counsels a lot of young people on starting their careers in the energy industry. She and Alex Foucault, who is a Millennial just launching his career at CET, compared notes on best practices from both sides of the table, and came up with the following recommendations.
Before the meeting:
Anyone that you want to be networking with is very busy. That's what makes them really useful but it also means that you can be the last thing on their mind. Make sure that you get their attention by not simply giving up communication after the first email but by being politely persistent. Email them a few times and then call them. Those emails and calls are also your first opportunity to show these people that you are hungry and worth their time.
Do your Research
Once you have gotten their attention and secured a time to meet, the leg work doesn't just end. What can you find online about them that will help guide your questions for your meeting? Do your due diligence and make sure that you know all about them and their company so that you have a clear sense of what they do and how they can help you. Don't just ask them to "tell you their story."
Figure out exactly what your goals are and be specific about why you think this person can help. When you are contacting them initially you don't need a 10-point plan, but the more specific you are, the easier it is for them to be helpful.
Also, be sure to make the location convenient for them. Offer to swing by their office so that they don't have to schlep to a coffee shop or restaurant.
Send a Reminder
Before the meeting, send a reminder email so that they don't have to dig through all of their correspondences to find your email from two weeks ago. Give them a quick reminder of what you wanted to talk about and maybe even send them some of the questions that you have prepared for them. No one likes to go into a meeting unprepared, so help them out. It will make the meeting go better for both of you and at the very least jog their memory.
During the Meeting:
Get to the point
Part of being professional is not wasting time. This is why those notes in advance are so important, so you can get straight to the point. This does not mean that you should forgo politeness and be short or terse but make sure that you don't waste their time. Get what you have to say on the table in a clear and organized manner. If you sent over those notes, they might even prompt you about those discussion topics.
Maybe the single biggest point. If you are asking someone for their time and expertise, the easiest way to show that you care and are not wasting their time is to write down what you take away from the discussion. Especially important is to make notes to yourself about questions that you have as they come up. That way you don't have to interrupt them and you show that you are really engaging with what you have to say. Writing it all down also allows you to organize all the information coming at you. Some people might speak in outlines but most don't, and taking notes can help you see connections that you might have missed. Even if you are just talking on the phone, make sure to take notes, as it will make everything so much easier especially the all-important follow-up.
Too many people go to a meeting but don't ask questions or don't ask the right questions. Often that comes from not wanting to seem ignorant. And while it is understandable that you don't want to show your ignorance, the worry is completely misguided. The very reason you took this meeting in the first place was because of your lack in knowledge. Your contact only expects you to have done reasonable research. For example, know what their company does and some basic history. However, you aren't expected to have insider knowledge or anything like that. Asking questions shows that you aren't afraid and most importantly gives your contact an insight into your thought process. If you are hoping for referrals from them this might be the single most important thing you could get out of the meeting. Asking an insightful question is how you stick out from the scores of other people coming into their office seeking advice. Think of it as a reverse job interview: they have all the answers you just have to show that you are smart enough to find them.
Respect the Meeting Time
Watch the clock and don't stay longer than the allotted time. If you feel like you have covered enough ground and can wrap up earlier, event better! Everyone appreciates a meeting that ends early. This shows respect, and prevents them from having to cut you off.
After the Meeting:
Make sure to send a note -- a handwritten thank you (if you have legible penmanship) adds a nice personal touch but an email is also fine -- thanking your contact for taking time out of their busy schedule to meet or talk with you. It doesn't need to be long, just thank them and include a brief bit about your conversation and what you are going to do next. If they put you in touch with someone else, make sure that you let them know how that conversation goes. If people give out advice or connections it helps them to know if those were helpful allowing them to keep tabs on their network. Lastly, if one of their referrals leads to an actual job, an appropriate way to thank them for this solid is to send a bottle of wine with a hand-written note. And then pay it forward and help someone else!