Hansi’s advice on meeting mentors or potential employers over coffee

“At the age of 23, Hansi wrote to the CEOs of 10 top firms, asking if she could buy them a cup of coffee and let her pick their brains.”

This line in the HerStory article in January 2016 seems to have encouraged hundreds of youngsters to write to me over the past two years. I am yet to reply to any. I read all of them; some of them are really amusing. But none had been professional, let alone eye-catching. So I’ve finally decided to make a video and write this article to share my views.

Don’t ask what you can google

There was some context to my writing to the CEOs. I didn’t approach them randomly and ask them where to start in the finance industry, like the messages to me seem to be doing. I did a two-year graduate diploma in Applied Finance and Investments on a part-time basis where the lecturers were industry professionals. I went up to a quite a few of them to understand their roles within the finance industry. After exploring various options, I narrowed my career choice down to mutual fund research and consulting. Remember, this was before Google days. That’s a lot of research and conversations.

The letter I then sent to the CEOs of the leading research and consulting firms mentioned my research. I wasn’t asking them to help me choose a career. I was asking them a specific question – if I did choose the path they had taken, and succeed like they had, would I be happy or regret that choice? Are there aspects of the job that I may not have understood as a fresh entrant to the industry?

The HerStory article mentions that I got one response. That’s how I remembered it at the time. But after the article appeared, a couple of my industry contacts in Australia reminded me that they had also met me – they remembered that letter and meeting me. So actually, three of out 10 had responded. That’s not bad!

So why do I not respond to the messages I get? Shouldn’t I be paying back the nice gesture that others did for me? I would like to respond and mentor youngsters, but here’s why I don’t. Unless you show me that you’ve done your homework – on your career choices, on me (or whoever you’re asking) and specifically how I can help you – the meeting would be waste of time. However, if your message showed some spark, some hint of the elusive X-factor, I might give a chance. Even then, I would like to see perseverance.

I am not alone in this view. Sheryl Sandberg mentions in her book Lean In, how her heart sinks when women walk up to her after her speeches and ask her to be their mentors. That’s not how mentorship works. The mentor needs to like the mentee, and they usually do so when they see a shadow of themselves, or unfulfilled potential.

Take feedback graciously

Once you get a meeting, or indeed an ongoing mentorship relationship, you need to use the mentor’s time very well. Ask the specific question – and then listen. Intently.

Mentors don’t usually take kindly to ‘can we talk once a month’-type requests. If that’s what you’re looking for, as Sheryl says in her book, you don’t need a mentor, you need a therapist!

Presumably, mentors are senior professionals, if not CEOs, who have seen hundreds of younger candidates and colleagues stumble their way through their careers. They may spot a limiting behaviour in you, before you realise it yourself. So if they provide feedback, it’s best to take it graciously. You may want to reflect on it rather than being defensive about it. If you still disagree, and it makes a difference to subsequent conversations, you can bring it up.

Stay in their peripheral vision

After the meeting, it’s worthwhile asking how to keep in touch with them, even if they haven’t agreed to mentor you.

In my days, there were limited ways of doing this. But I would go up to them at industry conferences just to say hello and quickly update them on my career progress. I would also stay visible in the industry media. Years later, a couple of those very senior industry leaders even remarked that I had come a long way from the first coffee meeting.

Nowadays, of course you can use LinkedIn to stay in touch. If you’re not on LinkedIn, get on it. No, it’s not okay to send me a Facebook message, especially as my intro clearly asks strangers to engage on my page instead.

Of course, it should go without saying that you send a thank you note after the meeting. And you did buy the coffee, right?

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