There’s a fine line between being annoying and being assertive, just like there’s a fine line between being a pest and being someone who responsibly follows up.
People might not tell your boss if you did a great job of being respectful of their time, but trust that the feedback will get to your superiors’ ears if you’re not, even if you’re talking to someone in the most distant corner of the organization who technically has a lower position than you.
How do you position yourself so that others willingly help you?
That was why. This is how.
1) Name dropping
Yeah, this is totally lame if you do it in a college admissions essay, or any essay, or regular conversation, but it really does make sense if you know someone whom the other person knows or vaguely knows.
When I was attempting to branch out to the more obscure parts of the corporation I was interning at for my project, knowing someone who knows someone else is a boon. It’s one thing to write to that generic inbox that no one feels particularly accountable for. It’s another thing to write to someone’s personal email and say that so-and-so said you would be a good resource.
Of course, make sure that person actually said the other person would be someone appropriate to talk to.
2) Name fishing
At the end of all my meetings, I always ask, is there someone else who would be a good resource?
People are all sorts of good-intentioned, but it’s your responsibility being the seeker of information or help to ask the right questions.
Also, when they mention other people’s names, double check to see what forms of contact are appropriate. Other people might name drop director names for self-branding purposes, without intending for you to actually contact said senior level manager.
3) Get buy in from your manager
No need to tell your manager or whomever it is you report to everything, but a quick sanity check — does it make sense to talk to this person? — and a yes, automatically means you have a “my manager said you’d be a good person to talk to” line that you can whip out.
This ensures that you’re not taking up someone’s time answering questions that were never worthwhile to begin with.
4) Short emails + agenda + options
God, I wrote so many “please let me pick your brain” emails. I’ve learned to be polite, appreciative and brief.
- Quick introduction and name drop
- 1-2 sentences of context: why in the greater scheme of things you need their help
- 1-2 sentence request: email me back, call me back, can I set up time, etc? Mention the agenda at the end
- 2 sentences: warm feelings of gratitude, double check to see if someone else would be a better resource
- Your signature / sign off
Really, the bulk of the email should look like 3 brief paragraphs. Tiny!
Stick the agenda at the bottom, so they can evaluate if your request makes sense (appropriate for a meeting versus replying over email) and if they are qualified to answer your questions.
But really, try to make it short.
5) Make meetings valuable
Duh? Come prepared, understand what they’re saying, get things clarified, and take notes. (I recommend typing up notes into OneNote afterward so you can search through all your notes.)
Also, get a sense of their background if there’s time.
Most importantly, understand how they fit in the bigger picture. What are they responsible for? What is their role? Who do they work with? Who do they work for? Thus, when you have more nagging questions, you know which of the people who helped you will most likely be able to help you or direct you.
6) Thanks + follow up
Thank people in a timely manner. Not too soon, not too late. If they did a really good job, call that out in the email. Pavlov and all that good stuff.
If you have any follow up questions after carefully pondering the meeting, now’s a great time to ask a follow up.
7) No answer?
Cultures are different. If the person you reached out to really hasn’t responded in a long time, try to find out if reasonable if they just got back from vacation or are swamped with work.
Some people really need to be reminded. So a polite email is fine too.
If that person really hasn’t responded, go back to your manager (that’s why you got their buy in) to see if they can drop a kind note to re-affirm the value of your help request.
8) Overall, it’s your responsibility + luck
No, these tips won’t get Obama to drop by on your Super Sweet 16 Partay. But, there are a lot of steps you can take to make it easier for someone to respond. Hey, everyone loves feeling like they’re an expert and lending a quick hand.
If you’re tackling a huge project, really really make sure you get your questions nailed down. Be forward thinking. Try to really understand what’s going on. But, also make sure, that you can prioritize your questions too. We all HATE meetings that run for longer than scheduled.