Four years ago I started on a career path that changed my life. Less than six months earlier, I was waiting tables and had no idea of the opportunities in the industry I would soon be employed in. It all started with an information gathering lunch.
In one of my countless attempts to try something new, I decided to run for political office. I was a bartender with no degree and no experience in public office. I needed to learn everything I could, and fast. One of the regulars at my bar worked for a power company, and it couldn’t hurt to learn how that industry works. So I asked him out for lunch. I could never have dreamed that less than six months later I would be putting the service industry behind me to go work for him.
I’m not telling you that taking someone out to lunch is going to change your life. But it could. And if it doesn’t, you’ll still be better off than if you hadn’t.
The goal of information gathering meetings is to expand your knowledge of what is out there, with the bonus of making key contacts that could lead to opportunities.
Here are eight steps to setting up and making good use of your next information gathering meeting:
- Find someone who does something interesting. It all starts with people who do something you’re interested in, or might be interested in. If you know what field you want to go into, you’ll be targeting a narrower group of people. If you’re not sure, even better. Like me when I didn’t have a plan, you have the whole sea to find some fish. Don’t over-think it. Just start asking people what they do and you’ll quickly find something that sounds interesting. If you’re targeting a specific industry, you’ll need to find a way to find those people. Industry associations are a great place to start. Even better is to find specific people at a company and contact them directly. You’d be surprised how many people will be willing to talk to you.
- Ask if they would meet to tell you about their career. Once you’ve found someone, time for the ask. Ask if they are willing to meet. Tell them you are in search of a dream job and would love to learn more about what they do and how they got there. Be sure to keep a professional, yet casual tone. They need to understand that you are not looking for a job, but for information (you probably won’t need to say this, but if you get a sense they feel uncomfortable, it may help to ease them). Most likely, if you’re request is well received, they will propose a setting. If not, suggest that you meet for coffee or lunch, or that you would be happy to stop by their office if that is easier.
- Do your homework in advance. You should have gotten the basic information before you asked for the meeting: what industry they work in and what they do. Do as much research as you can in advance of the meeting. It will help you get the most out of the meeting and it will probably impress them and show them you’re serious. Get a picture of the industry as a whole, its size, products, services, business sectors. If you know what company this person works for, do the same for the company. If you know what this person’s job is, research what that is. What does it entail? Is it specific to this industry? What background and qualifications are typically required?
- Come prepared with questions. After doing some basic research, you will no doubt have some questions. Keep a list handy in case there is time to get some answers. Be prepared to ask the most important general questions: What is your background, how did you end up where you are? What do you do, how does your job work? How does your job benefit the company? Who do you work with, do you have a team, do you interact with other groups within the company, do interact with groups or customers externally?
- Let them lead the meeting. Now that you have your questions ready, shut up. Use them if you need to get things started or to transition through a quiet moment, but let them talk. If they take you down a rabbit hole, go with them, and ask more clarifying questions.
- Take copious notes.Write down key words or phrases that catch your ear. Learning a new industry or field is much about learning the lingo. Write down subjects or specifics that would be good to look more into.
- Ask if they know anyone else you could meet with. When your meeting is over, ask them if they know anyone else that they think you should talk to. Try not to walk away without at least one name, hopefully a few. Ask if they would be so kind as to connect you with those people.
- Thank them sincerely. If you went for coffee or lunch, pick up the tab. Thank them sincerely for taking their time to talk with you. Send a follow up e-mail thanking them again and telling them how useful the meeting was for you.
Are you dreaming of a better job? Maybe you have something in mind already, or maybe you’re ready for a change but have no idea what is next. If you want to try something new, it’s time to take someone out for lunch. You’ll be amazed at the opportunities it will bring.
Go have lunch and tell me what you learned.