Interviewing seasoned professionals has been a great way for me to gain wisdom and insight into industry trends, company challenges, and corporate culture, and has provided me with a sounding board for new ideas. I value such opportunities, and during discussions I actively reciprocate for these individuals and for other professionals for whom I could be of added value. But when someone asks if they could “pick my brain”, I instantly feel less excited about the prospect of helping them. Their intentions might be harmless, but the imagery in their language reminds me a bit too much of a famously disturbing movie scene starring Anthony Hopkins and Ray Liota.
Even if I hadn’t had the misfortune of viewing and remembering that scene, I would still remain somewhat apprehensive about the request. A subtle negative vein of intent runs through this stale idiom, and it’s related to the one-way benefit that it implies. It shouts, “You give, I get”, exhibiting zero evidence that any interaction with this person will yield an opportunity for discussion. The value that I bring to the table is worth more than that, and so is yours….a notion that young professionals in particular often forget.
When you find yourself on the ask, it lends enormously to your professional credibility if you use a creative and polite approach. Here are some suggestions that, if properly employed, can open a spigot of sought advice from other professionals.
“I’d be grateful for your perspective.”
“I admire your accomplishments. Would you be willing to share your wisdom?”
“I’m actively working to understand your industry’s challenges, and have great respect for your perspective.”
“I value your viewpoint” or “I’d benefit greatly from your outlook. Would you be willing to invest in a 15-minute phone call?”
These are all examples of sincere, well-received spoken language possibilities useful in appealing for favors or advice from someone in your network. Notice that not only do they express respect for, and gratitude to the other party, but they intrinsically imply a sentiment of sharing, leaving open-ended the possibility for the person to tap you for your perspective. It’s a learn-learn situation. Master this eloquence, and you will not only receive as often as you give, but you will find yourself at the center of a well-oiled network.
In addition to knowing what to say and how to say it, it’s wise to have a specific agenda or goal in mind before you engage in the ask. Without this sense of purpose, your request will run the risk of being mistaken as random chat or catching up. Organize your thoughts in advance, don’t beat around the bush, and proceed with confidence in a manner that will make it entirely clear what you are seeking. Fear not that your confidence will be interpreted as presumption or arrogance; with the use of right language, you will earn respect and likely receive what you set out for.
Never Forget To Follow Up
Once your request is granted (because true professionals genuinely want to help), there are two rules of protocol that are necessary for showing your appreciation and maintaining the momentum in your relationship. First and foremost, if the favor was a lead or an introduction, do not blow it off! Formally thank the person by email, indicating your big takeaway or plans for taking next steps (give yourself bonus points for a handwritten card!). I like the touch of sending the person a published article or an idea or even a lead, based on what I’ve learned from them.
The 2nd rule: Keep the person in the loop regarding your progress with the lead by periodically checking in. This will not only serve to demonstrate what they’ve done for you was a good move and worth their efforts, but it is a clever way to keep their awareness of you refreshed.