The Art of the Ask: Seeking Professional Advice

It is so easy to find and connect with someone these days. So easy, in fact, that we often fail at "The Art of the Ask." If you don't know how to ask, no amount of access with help you. Recent grads, inside sales people, eager entrepreneurs, and career changing networkers send countless daily requests for both guidance and time. "I just need ...." messages flood social media and in-boxes. On the receiving end, most people can't invest the time to know which request is a scam, going to be a huge time-suck, or which might be a rewarding experience for you both. Odds are that if you can't separate the poser from the purposeful, you won’t respond to either.

Not a Question of Manners

It is great that your parents taught you manners. I can use some help because I always get my forks mixed up and tend to put my elbows on the table. But aside from that, manners and respect for the ask are important, but most people don't under-do it, they over-do it. Ask for what you think is a respectful and decent amount of time and let them know you appreciate their time but leave it at that. Long, rambling diatribes about valuing their time and how much you appreciate them is actually a way of wasting their time by sending a longer request. Appreciate them, respect them, then quit while you are ahead. You know they are busy, they certainly know they are busy. Set the right tone, but don't over-do it.

Dear Jane, you have built a career that I want for myself ....
Dear Ted, I am impressed how you have moved around the globe as I look to ....

Propose a Purpose

Would you email a business leader and ask them for $50 for no apparent reason? (If you do, I would like 50% of your take for giving you the idea!) But asking for someone to talk with you is just that - an investment that they make into you. Even a "few minutes of your time" is seldom just that. People are generally good and I know most business people love to give counsel and help someone out - they all remember when they needed it. But reaching out and lacking a purpose is just like asking for money. Tell them exactly what it is you are looking for and have an agenda ready to go. Know what you want them for and ask for it specifically.

Dear Jane, you have held leadership roles with several brands I admire. I have 2 questions that I am struggling with as I .... and I could use your expertise.
Dear Ted, my partner and I just relocated near you. We don't know any local resources and you have been active in the local community for years. Can I ask you a few questions about finding ...?

Don't Lead with Time

Of course, it will be "quick," and "just a few minutes." No one ever asks for "I just need 3 days and nights of your time." But don't lead with that. The time is somewhat irrelevant. The person will spend a good deal of time with you if you are worthy of it, worth the effort. Starting with - or focusing on the time commitment - already says that you are looking for something. No need for an example here, you got this one.

Don't Trojan Horse

Had one Trojan just said "Hey, wait a minute! Let me stick some spears in the belly of this thing before hauling into our gates," we might be dining instead at our favorite Trojan place for spanakopita. Do not lure them with an ask for one thing, with the intention of asking for something entirely different once you meet them. It is one thing to let the ask evolve naturally, but don't use this as a con to get something entirely different. Frequently used by hack sales people, it either invalidates any good will and investment the person has made in you but will also just waste your time in the end. It is OK to let things move to the next natural step, but better to be clear and up front with what you are asking them for.

Dear Jane, thank you for agreeing to meet me for coffee to discuss my career. After I ask a few seemingly interesting questions about you and I flatter you for your professional ladder-climbing skills, I am going to reveal my true intentions and ask you to be my resume Sherpa and pass this around the leadership team until someone offers to hire me. 
Dear Ted, I won't really be interested in your professional opinion about our new product, but I am biding my time until I can ask you to get me in front of the procurement manager so I can get your company to purchase our new product, now with flavor crystals.

Even doing everything correctly may still yield you more than a few misses. But you can greatly improve your chances of finding good people who will make a significant investment in you, your product, and your company if you know how to make the ask.

And if you can get random people to give you $50, reach out to me as I am looking for a Head of Sales.

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