Brand building through storytelling

The etiquette of asking for career advice

No matter what field you’re in or how accomplished you are, there will be times when you find yourself perplexed by a challenge you’ve never faced before. So you turn to a trustworthy pro with the contacts or the know-how to point you in the right direction. A person like my friend Leslie, a busy self-employed consultant who gets a buzz from sharing what she’s learned.

With Leslie’s help, I’ve sold books, found interview subjects, even landed a speaking gig. She’s a whiz at marketing, and at connecting people who wouldn’t meet in any other way. That’s why I’ve been known to drop her name to other women who could use a hand promoting their services.”You two will enjoy each other,” I have said. “Leslie’s so generous with her time and expertise.” Meanwhile other people were saying pretty much the same thing.

The last time I spoke with Leslie, my buoyant friend was feeling vaguely troubled. She’d agreed to a flurry of lunch dates with near-strangers who had asked, “Mind if I pick your brain?” These women had been thrilled with Leslie’s insights. They took copious notes. “Thank you, thank you!” they exclaimed. Leslie hated to mention what happened next—or to be more precise, did not happen. She’s an upbeat person who looks for the best in people. But as she noted with a sigh of disappointment, “Not one of those women reached for the cheque. Don’t you think that shows a lack of grace?”

Indeed I do. The women who’ve been picking Leslie’s brain are not recent graduates living in their parents’ basement. They’re seasoned mid-lifers with good cars and stylish clothes. You’d think they could afford to treat Leslie to lunch. “I hate to say it,” I said, “but women are cheap.”

I spoke too soon. Looking back on the women who have sought my advice through the years, I’m struck by the courtesy of many who had neither track records nor designer wardrobes.

Unknown writers have recently paid for my sandwich without a moment’s hesitation. (I’d have cut them some slack if they hadn’t—few professions pay less than writing—yet I thought better of them for the gesture.) In my previous career as a magazine editor-in-chief, I was struck by how many young job-seekers sent hand-written notes after information interviews. One particularly lively and astute young woman even made a charitable donation in my name. That’s not why I wished I had a job for her, but I must say it burnished the powerful impression she made.

Confession: when I first started knocking on editors’ doors, I never once sent a thank you note for the advice that my elders had been kind enough to share. I assumed they were passing on to me the same kindness shown to them in their youth. True enough, but I was missing something. At the time I felt entitled to share the wisdom of these executives and to drop their names on the phone. In my experience this I-deserve-it attitude is more common among baby boomers than among the 20-somethings whose presumed sense of entitlement is widely slagged by my generation.

Here’s where I draw the line today. If you and I are having lunch to brainstorm about my business, it’s only fair that I pick up the tab. Even if we’ve only chatted on the phone, I’ll keep an eye out for ways to help you—not because you’re keeping score, but because it nurtures good will between us. In Leslie’s case, I’ve just suggested she expand her services to include coaching for neophyte marketers and consultants. Next time she’s invited to a brain-picking lunch by someone she knows slightly or not at all, she can make it clear from the start that this will be a business transaction. And she can count on me to recommend her new sideline.

Click here to read one of my first posts, in honour of a very special teacher.

Posted by Rona

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