When you're involved in a job search, meetings over lunch or coffee with contacts in your network—and with your contacts' contacts—can help you uncover job opportunities or lead you to people who work at desirable organizations. Depending on how you approach these meetings, your networking will be either tremendously productive or a painful waste of everyone's time.
You want to prepare in such a way that your contact doesn't walk away wishing he could get that 30 minutes of his life back.
"When the meeting is over, both parties should leave with a smile on their faces, feeling that the meeting was very worthwhile and a good use of their time," says Ford Myers, president of career coaching firm Career Potential and author of Get the Job You Want, Even When No One's Hiring (Wiley 2009).
Myers shared his five tips for achieving that goal:
1. Make sure the meeting is not one-sided. Myers advises you to assure contacts up front, when requesting a meeting, that you want the encounter to be mutually beneficial. He notes that job seekers who set the expectation up front that they want to give back to their contacts get more out of their networking meetings than job seekers who don't.
When arranging the meeting, you should ask the contact to think of things with which you could be helpful, whether work-related or not. For example, if you know the person needs work done on a house or car, you can refer a mechanic or contractor. You could recommend a restaurant. If you're meeting with a friend or neighbor, you could offer to run an errand.
During the networking meeting, the job seeker should again ask how he or she can help the contact. "If the other person says, 'Nothing. Don't worry about it,' don't say, 'Ok, fine,'" says Myers. "You want to say, 'No, I mean it. I want to help you the way you've helped me.' The networker has to push a little bit to show the other person that they're serious about providing something in return."
2. Have an agenda. Before you even request a meeting with a contact, you should know exactly what you want to get from speaking with this person, whether that's additional names or feedback on your résumé, for example. Your agenda might also include a list of questions that you'd like to ask your contact or a list of companies you're targeting in your job search.
Send this agenda, along with a one-page professional bio, to your contact before your meeting, advises Myers. This agenda makes your needs clear to your contact so that he or she can start thinking about possible ways to help you, thereby maximizing everyone's time.
"It's not reasonable to walk into a networking meeting empty handed and just say, 'Do you know anyone I can talk to?' Having your background document and your list of targeted companies helps the other person help you," says Myers.
3. Take charge. "Since you set up the meeting, you have to run it the same way you'd run a meeting at the office," says Myers. That doesn't mean you have to act formal and business-like or that you have to put a presentation together. But you do have to kick it off, keep it on track and make sure you touch on everything that you need to address.
4. Stick to the schedule. If you ask for half hour of a person's time, don't exceed 30 minutes. Be respectful of the other person's availability.
5. Follow up. Don't neglect to thank your contact for his or her time after the meeting. Myers recommends using the thank-you e-mail as an opportunity to ask your contact for his or her feedback on the meeting you held.
When you land a job, make sure you share the good news with your contacts, says Myers, and tell them all that you couldn't have done it without their help.
"There's a right way to network and a wrong way to network," says Myers. "Our way is very structured, purposeful and productive. It yields great results."
Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Meridith at firstname.lastname@example.org.