Can Coffee Help Your Career?

In this super-connected world we live in you’d think networking would be a breeze right? Well, the truth is, there are not a lot of people who know how to do it really well. Sure, they may have hundreds of LinkedIn contacts and social media friends, but that’s where it ends.

Nothing is better than a face-to-face conversation. Yes, they take more time than pressing send, but the connection you create can’t be replicated by any online exchange. Just ask Eddie Walter, who upon graduating last Spring from Syracuse University (go Orange--my alma mater too) made it his goal to connect with as many people as possible at his new employer, JP Morgan Chase.

“My initial motivation was that I wanted to quickly learn the company and the business, as well as grow my career here,” Eddie told me in an interview. “So I set out to meet as many people as I could by asking them to join me for a cup of coffee.”

He started with a realistic goal: two different people, meet for 30 minutes at a coffee shop where they work.

The results were immediate.

After a few weeks, Eddie knew more people at his company than any other member on his team – most of whom had been with the company for years. His growing network was invaluable for networking across departments and getting work done—for him and his colleagues.

To date, he has had more than 200 cups of coffee with employees ranging from associates to executive directors and even a vice chairman.

So what’s his secret to being a superstar networker? Here’s his strategy:

Decide who you want to contact. Eddie went to the company’s internal website and studied faces, names and titles. “I prioritized contacts based on my job responsibilities. I also leveraged the Syracuse alumni network here. I compiled at least 200 names, and from that started making phone calls to invite people to coffee, starting at the junior level and then moving up the ladder.”  When talking to junior level employees, Eddie asked more informal questions about their jobs, products and services they deliver, and in the end, that information helped him ask more substantial questions when he met with senior leaders.

Use what you’ve got and have an agenda. Eddie set out to have a master list of all the people he wanted to meet for coffee. His approach of cold contacting, introducing himself and scheduling a coffee date, took about five minutes of time and netted more than an 80 percent success rate. The common ground shared by other SU alumni triggered a yes response every time. “So that’s a great group to start with for anyone who tries this approach. Find other alumni from your college.” In contacting others—by phone and a follow-up email—Eddie explained his goal of quickly learning—learning about the company, its people, and how they carved their career paths. He ultimately hoped that by making a good impression with the first candidate group for coffee, they would be willing to introduce him to one or two more people. He was right. Doors opened to dozens and dozens of new contacts.

Be prepared. Research, research, research. Eddie said he prepares for a coffee date with the same intensity as working a project. He studies internal and external online directories for information about each person, gathering information on both professional and personal sides. “I want to know their interests, where they went to school, and if they belonged to a fraternity or sorority.” Armed with these details, Eddie develops a list of five questions that he really wants to ask, plus some general questions for backup. “It’s not an interview,” he said. “It’s informal, but it should be treated like an interview so they can feel it is a valuable use of their time.”  As a rule, his 30-minute coffee chats start on time (Eddie arrives at least 5 minutes early) and end on time, unless his ‘guest’ offers a few more minutes.

Take notes. Don’t rely on memory to capture the highlights of a conversation. Eddie brings a pad and pen, and periodically jots down important facts that he’s learned about the person and what they do. Don’t use your smartphone to take notes--the optics look like you are checking messages and texting. Technology does have a role for storing notes. Transfer them into a Cloud-based contact directory. “It’s important to stay organized,” he advised.

Follow-up and ask for a referral. Immediate follow-up is a must. Eddie, real-time, sends a short email of appreciation and recaps a few of the conversation’s highlights. He includes a request for a recommendation of a colleague who Eddie, in turn, could meet. “Referrals are great door openers,” he noted.  “There’s nothing more valuable than someone saying, ‘I just talked to Eddie, it would be great if you could meet him and give him some more insights.’ I would get a near immediate response.”

Face-to-face trumps everything. Forget settling for an introductory email – it needs to go farther. You need to have that face-to-face opportunity, otherwise it won't help you get where you want to go in your career. Regardless of all the technology we have at our fingertips, there’s nothing like that personal connection of sitting across from someone over a coffee. “Doors and opportunities open when people get to know you,” Eddie said. “And that can’t happen through a few lines of email. People need to look you in the eye and see your smile. That connection requires no technology.”

Eddie’s value to his team and the company has increased multi-fold. Despite his brief tenure at his firm, he’s grown an extensive professional network and cultivated a shining reputation. “People are astonished at the breadth of knowledge that I've acquired and can leverage,” Eddie concluded. “You wouldn't suspect that a few coffees can do that, but I've learned so much during these chats that make me better in my day-to-day job.”

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co.  in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce—a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.