If you have a good job and have recently spent time with family or old friends, you’re probably familiar with the situation: You share a big accomplishment or project you’ve been working on and a relative says, “You should talk to [insert distant cousin or friend of a friend here] about what you do. He needs to work this summer. You can get him an internship!”
Of course, it’s good to be helpful, and you don’t want to be rude. On the other hand, you’re cringing inside because you also know that networking, while important, can take up lots of your time.
I experienced these awkward moments regularly during my days working at MTV and VH1. Despite telling people that I worked on the corporate side and was not involved in production, I was pitched so many new artists and demo tracks that I could have started my own record label. Putting in a “good word” for an internship or position was another common request that, as a junior manager at a company of 10,000 people, I never had enough influence to honor.
Through trial and error, I learned a few tips for handling the request and keeping my time and energy in check. If you’re in a similar boat, consider the following:
Ask Questions to Qualify Readiness
Some requests can be handled on the spot before you expend too much effort. Treat your conversation like a screening before a job interview, and focus on SPF: skill, potential, fit. (And yes, even in situations when parents are asking favors for their college-aged kids, you can assume that they have some basic knowledge about their child’s career pursuits.)
- What to Ask: What are your strongest skills?
- What to Listen For: While a resume should spell this out pretty clearly, everyone should be able to speak confidently about what they’re good at when asked.
- What to Ask: What are your career goals?
- What to Listen For: If her goals clearly align with what your company is looking for, consider what kind of arc she could have within your team in the short and long term. You definitely don’t want to bend over backward to help someone who seems unfocused or will jump ship at the sight of the next hot trend (R.I.P. Bitcoin).
- What to Ask: It’s awkward to ask “Why would anyone want to sit next to you eight hours a day?” but you can get an answer by being perceptive.
- What to Listen For: You know what it takes to fit into your company and team, so read the person’s character in your conversation. If you feel she’s arrogant or unmotivated now, she’s probably not going to change any time soon.
SPF will help you know how ready someone is for an opportunity. If you find the person hasn’t put much thought into his search, try referring him to resources that will help him learn more, such as your company website or industry blogs. If he or she passes your SPF screen, you can consider helping out—think mentioning your experience to the hiring manager, writing a LinkedIn recommendation as an advisor or mentor, or setting up some time to talk more. On that note:
Understand the Time Investment
You should never feel forced into networking or doing a favor for someone (especially for someone you don’t know well), so it’s important for you to set the rules for how you spend time on requests to “pick your brain,” sit down for informational interviews, or answer questions about your career. Know that you have several options available, including:
- Answering Questions by Email: One option is to ask the person to send you his or her top three questions over email. This approach is mutually beneficial because you can respond when you have the time and your recipient gets thoughtful answers instead of rushed ones. Just try not to let a week pass without a response unless you give specific, advance notice of how long it will take.
- Taking a Phone Call: Even if someone wants to chat with you, you don’t have to meet in person! A 15-minute (or less) call is often the most efficient use of your time. Video chats are also good when phone isn’t the best option (such as between countries), but do plan extra time for unexpected technical difficulties.
- Coffee Meetings: While sometimes it sounds nice to be treated to an afternoon latte, coffee meetings are time burglars. Think of all the steps involved: commuting to and from, ordering, finding seats, and then finally talking. “Quick” can turn into an hour of lost time before you know it, so be careful with whom you agree to sit down.
- Onsite Office Visits: Especially if you work for a big-name company, people may be clamoring to “stop by” and see where you work. But these should be reserved for those who will see the most value from it. For example, if you work at a tech startup, hosting your adolescent cousin who is taking her first coding class could help her see web development as a future career option.
Put Them to Work, or Punt
Let’s say that your relative or acquaintance has done all his homework and you decide to offer a phone call. As a next step, ask him to do a follow-up task based on what you discussed and get back to you within 30 days about its results.
For example, if you gave suggestions for resume improvements, ask to see it again when they are complete (rather than editing it yourself). If he follows directions and does it well—congrats! He has earned your referral or introduction.
In he has more work to do, or if you just don’t have the time, you can “punt” the request a future date. Be firm, but fair, with this script: “I’d love to find the best way to be helpful, but I’m booked solid. Reach out to me in a few weeks and I’ll be happy to connect.” If he truly needs your advice, he will be in touch.
Your time and reputation are two of your most important assets. Use them wisely!