By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

As college students, we are taught the value of the informational interview: to build connections, learn about industries and roles, and to introduce ourselves to potential connections without the pressure of a job interview. College students are taught to draw upon their networks – alumni networks, family connections, people they meet through summer job and internships – in order to make the initial outreach, so that it doesn’t feel like a “cold call.” As we tell our students, Wake Forest people like to help other Wake Forest people, so don’t be shy about reaching out to those alumni you find through LinkedIn or the WakeNetwork.

People in an office with a table in the middle of the room

Photo by ROOM on Unsplash

As adults, we tend to forget about the value of this practice. But it is no less important now that you are a gainfully-employed, fully-formed grown-up. Indeed, network-building is and should be a lifelong endeavor, because it’s all about relationship-building, learning, and growth. And you don’t want to wait to do this work when you need something, like a job or a resource. You want to do the work of finding your people and building your network first, so that when you circle back with an ask those people are more inclined to help you.

But how exactly do you do this work? It’s quite simple, actually, and it starts with shifting your mindset from a place of “what can I get out of this person” to “what can I learn from this person.” And the easiest place to start is with the people right around you, the people you already know but perhaps could get to know a little better. As you have those conversations and get comfortable with the process, you can broaden your asks to people they know, then people you don’t know but just find interesting. How does this work?

First, make the ask. “Hi Bob, I was reading about the work you do in marketing, which has been an interest of mine for some time. I was wondering if I could have thirty minutes of your time to ask you some questions about your career path, challenges you’ve encountered, what you think makes you successful? I’m happy to work with your schedule to find a time that works.” With someone you already know, of course, you can make this even more informal: “Hi Kathy, in the spirit of relationship-building I was wondering if we could find some time to grab coffee and catch up? I’d love to learn more about what you’re working on these days.”

Second, come prepared. Whether it’s in-person, over the phone, via Skype, or some other format, do not waste this other person’s time. Identify a list of 5-7 questions you would like to cover during your time together. And remember, this is supposed to be a conversation (they will likely have questions for you, too), not an interrogation. And, it’s all about the learning. I have a colleague who says, as long as you stay in a place of natural curiosity about the other person, you will always ask the right question. So stay curious about people. Everyone has a story to tell. Here are some potential questions you might bring with you.

  • What is one “life lesson” you have learned and how did you learn it?
  • If you were starting this job all over, what would you do differently and why?
  • What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about effective communication and how did you learn it?
  • What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about leadership and how did you learn it?
  • What is the greatest challenge or hurdle you have had to overcome and what did you do?
  • What is the greatest success you have accomplished? What did you learn?
  • When faced with a complex decision or problem with no obvious solution, what steps do you take to approach it?
  • How would you describe your learning style? What tools or strategies do you find particularly effective?
  • What habit would you most like to change about yourself? Why?
  • If you weren’t afraid of failing, what would you do? Why?
  • When was the last time you were surprised by something/someone? What happened?
  • What were the differences between the best and worst decisions you have made?
  • How do you define success? How have you (or how are you working to) achieved it?
  • What is the best piece of advice you have for me?

Third, stick to the time. Again, don’t waste the other person’s time. If you agreed to thirty minutes, be mindful and respectful of that. People are busy, and no doubt by having this conversation with you, they have put off doing something else that is equally as important, if not more so. Always make your final question an ask of who else you should reach out to, and say thanks for their time and sharing a bit of their experience with you.

Fourth, follow-up. Also send a follow-up thank you either by email or a handwritten note. Not only is this a kind and polite thing to do, it serves as another touch point for you, with them. I am far more inclined to remember the person who sent me a thank you note than those who do not.

Rinse and repeat. Again, as you do more of this, you will get more comfortable with it, and even grow to enjoy it! Building your network and finding your people doesn’t have to be miserable, onerous work. It should be fun, enlightening, and energizing.