Need guidance? Time to pick someone’s brain

Industry insiders can offer valuable advice about a chosen career path, but there’s a right way to do it, WALLACE IMMEN writes


The phone rings. A voice says nervously: “You don’t know me, but I would appreciate a few minutes of your time to get your advice on my next career move.”

Strangers regularly call Terry Farrell, financial consultant with Investors Group Inc. in Toronto, asking if they can pick his brain about prospects in his organization and his industry. “Invariably, I say yes, come on in,” says Mr. Farrell, whose own career spans 40 years in management and a variety of senior sales positions.

“My time is valuable and I don’t have to do it,” he explains, “but I like to, because I think my advice and encouragement can help people.” And, most of the time, he finds it immensely rewarding.

Unfortunately, all too often, he finds these advice seekers don’t make the most of the opportunity because they arrive unprepared or don’t ask the right questions. And a few make such appalling gaffes they turn the encounter into a waste of his time and theirs.

That should never happen, because an advice call can be the best way to get insider help to open the door to a new career, says Colleen Clarke, author of Networking, How to Build Relationships that Count and president of Colleen Clarke and Associates in Toronto

“You have 30 minutes at most to make an impression and it’s important that you come prepared and make every minute work in your favour,” she says.

And now is probably the best time of the year to get that advice by approaching an experienced insider for an informational interview, she says.

“In the summer, people are a little more relaxed and are likely to have time to see you because the pace of the office slows a bit as employees and clients take summer breaks,” Ms. Clarke says.

And it’s also a time when many companies are recruiting for expansion and new projects are being planned for the fall, and they’ll be receptive when talented people come calling.

So how do you make the most of your encounter? Here’s advice from the executive and the coach that candidates should heed:

Come prepared. Mr. Farrell says he has had people tell him they aren’t sure why they were asking for a meeting. That immediately dampens his enthusiasm for the interview, he says.

“Someone who wants to head out on a new career path had better have at least a good idea of where they want to go before they ask me for directions.”

Ms. Clarke recommends doing extensive homework on the industry, your strengths and interests before you make an approach to a potential adviser. In your initial call, lay out what it is you want, she says.

For instance: ” I’d like to tell you a little about myself and then I have a series of questions for you about how my skills fit in the career I have in mind. Will that be alright with you?”

Be prompt. You’ve called the meeting and it is vital not to waste the time of a busy person. They will give you a chilly reception if you do, Mr. Farrell says. “I’ve had people say they’ll show up at 10 and without any call or explanation, they’ll show up at quarter to 11. To me, that just shows contempt for me and my time.”

Appearance counts. “I’ve had people come in to my office looking like they just rolled out of bed,” Mr. Farrell says.

Even if it is summer and you’ll only be meeting over coffee with the source, you want to show up in dress that is appropriate to the work you want to do, Ms. Clarke advises.

Demonstrate decorum. Be scrupulous about manners because any breach of etiquette is magnified in a brief encounter, Ms. Clarke advises. One advice seeker flipped his sport jacket over the back of a chair and put his feet up on the desk after he sat down, Mr. Farrell recalls. “That made me so angry I felt like ordering this jerk out of my office. People that laid back make me wonder why am I wasting my time with them.”

Don’t vent. One person came in and all he wanted to do was complain about how badly he was treated by his past employer, Mr. Farrell says. “This is not a psychiatric service. You want to talk about your future, not your past.”

Ask evocative questions. Your questions should be well thought out and probing. You can glean general industry information from newspaper and journal articles and items on the Internet, but what you want is the person’s specific insights. Ms. Clarke recommends.

For instance, Mr. Farrell says he often gets naive questions from prospects about how much salary they can expect in a sales job because they don’t realize income is based on commissions. That gets them off on the wrong foot.

Know when to shut up. Sometimes, people end up talking too much, Mr. Farrell says. Instead of getting insights, they spend the entire time talking about themselves. If they do that, it suggests they wouldn’t be able to listen to their clients’ needs, he says.

A good rule of thumb is for the advice seeker to speak no more than 30 per cent of the time and listen for the rest, Ms. Clarke says. Speak for no more than three consecutive minutes, because the average person’s attention span maxes out at that point. “Then you let them talk. After all, you are asking for their advice,” Ms. Clarke says.

Pay attention. “Nothing puts me off faster than a person who doesn’t sound enthusiastic or seems distracted,” Mr. Farrell says. “Sometimes when I’m talking with someone, I think: ‘Is this guy even listening to me?’ ”

You shouldn’t be doing advice calls just to say you’ve done some networking, Ms. Clarke says. “This is all about your career future, so you should hang on every word,”

Show appreciation. When you have taken advantage of a half hour of someone’s valuable time and received expert advice, the least you should do is thank them, Ms. Clarke says. Following up is a good way to reinforce the impression you made and increases the likelihood that they will keep you in mind if there is a job opening.

“I’m not expecting gifts, but if I was looking to hire someone, it would be someone who would show some appreciation for having a job with me,” Mr. Farrell says. “You don’t have to grovel, just be appreciative.”


Summer’s a great time to approach people who may be in a position to help move your career forward.

Here are tips from Colleen Clarke, author of Networking, How to Build Relationships that Count, for getting the most out of the encounter:

Timing is important

Call when they’re most receptive to your request. Early morning or after lunch are best, because in late morning, blood sugar levels fall and work pressures rise and the person may be distracted, Ms. Clarke says. By late in the day, particularly Fridays, the person is trying to finish up the day’s tasks. Consider Sundays, when executives may be alone in their office. If you have their direct line, your call will be one of the few they get.

Why choose me?

Let the person know you’ve done your homework and consider them the best resource to help you determine where you might find a niche in their profession.

Stand your ground

Plan and practise a concise description of what you want to discuss. If the person you’re calling says “I’m in a hurry,” you say “I promise it will only take 30 seconds to explain what I want.” That shows determination and assertiveness, Ms. Clarke says.

Make it easy

Respect their time and promise you only need a maximum of 30 minutes. Suggest you’ll come to see them at their office.

State your purpose

Your best approach is to say you are very interested in what the person has learned about the company and the industry. Informational interviews can lead to a job offer, but “you should never go in under the pretext of asking advice and then ask for a job,” Ms. Clarke advises.

Give them options

Giving a choice of when to meet makes them part of a decision. For instance: “How are Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning for you?”

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

Come prepared with questions that show you are sincere about doing well and show enthusiasm, which will encourage the source to continue to help you in the search.

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