how do I network with a senior person when I’m much more junior?

A reader writes:

I am a fairly recent college grad (2013) who was hired by the local city government just a few months out of college into the job I’ve had for the last three years, the first two of which I was working part-time while juggling other jobs and internships. Now, however, I have been a full-time employee for over a year, with more responsibility, trust, etc. and am starting to think about what my next steps should be. I have been thinking that I would like to stay in the field I’m in, but am hoping to transition out of the public-facing work that I’m currently doing into a more research-focused role.

Last week I went to an author talk here in the city and, while waiting for the author to arrive, began chatting with the older woman seated next to me. We discovered that we had a lot in common, including shared travel experiences and the fact that we both work in the same field — in fact, she works in the part of the field that I am hoping to transition into. She asked me a few questions about my experience and what I am hoping to do in the future, but since it was such a casual discussion, however, I hadn’t really thought of it as an opportunity (because I struggle with networking), and was totally surprised when she handed me her business card at the end of the night and suggested I keep an eye out for job openings at her organization. Turns out, she works for one of the best-known organizations in the field and has a very senior role there!

All of which is to say: I know the general rules of networking (in part, from reading your archives on the topic) — building meaningful relationships, mutual beneficence, not wasting time or making onerous demands — but how do I actually begin to follow up on an opportunity like this one? Should I email now, or wait? And if I reach out now, what am I supposed to say? And how does one go about building a mutual relationship with someone who is so much more advanced in their career than me? Any advice would be much appreciated!

Email her now so that she doesn’t forget you. Tell her that you really enjoyed meeting her, that you were especially delighted because you’ve been wanting to move into the part of the field that she’s in, and that you’d love to meet her for coffee and talk more if she’d be willing to give you some advice on the industry.

(Then, of course, be prepared with actual questions to ask her if she takes you up on that offer. Don’t be the person who suggests a networking coffee or asks to pick someone’s brain and then waits for the other person to draw them out and do all the work. That is a thing that happens, and you want to avoid that by preparing before the meeting.)

You also asked about how to build a relationship that’s beneficial to her as well, when she’s so much more advanced in her career than you are. I think you might be getting too hung up on that part of networking advice that says to make sure that networking is a give and take. It’s true that you don’t want to just take and never give back to people … but when you’re very junior to someone, you often won’t be positioned to give back to them in terms of advice, contacts, etc. But what you can definitely give back is gratitude and appreciation, and you shouldn’t discount how much those can make it worth it for the other person. A lot of people find it really satisfying to help out people in earlier stages of their careers, as long as the recipient of that help appears to appreciate it and shows a genuine interest.

Networking also isn’t usually as much of a quid pro quo as you may be envisioning — more often it’s an investment in longer-term relationship building. And the connection may develop in unexpected ways down the road (like maybe in two years you refer the perfect person to her for a job she’s hiring for, or connect her with your boss for something relevant to both of them, or who knows what).

Good luck!

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. AnotherHRPro*

    Another way that more senior individuals benefit from networking is better understanding what younger and more junior individuals are interested in and find challenging. It is a great opportunity for them to keep a pulse on another generation in their field. I personally network/mentor with a few folks much more junior than I am and I definitely find our relationship beneficial. I will run ideas and project past them to get their input and am always better off for doing so.

    I also recommend you connect with this person on linked in.

  2. Venus Supreme*

    I feel like networking is dependent on given circumstances. For instance, I made one great connection with a person after I attended a seminar she hosted and she helped me through a difficult project ToxicJob handed me. I’ve also networked with people because I was genuinely curious about how they got the job they had and what their average work day looked like (which are usually my starter questions!)

    Interestingly enough, I’ve already received the “let’s meet for coffee and I’ll pick your brain” questions from college seniors/college grads in my industry (these are actually former classmates– I graduated a couple years ago). But I can say, being on the opposite end of networking feels cool. I really appreciate those who reach out to me and they’re more present in my mind when I hear of a job/internship/program/volunteer opportunity that I think would benefit them. I never once thought about how they could return the favor.

    Definitely e-mail that lady back, thank her for her time chatting with you, and ask her how she got her current job when you meet up! Don’t worry about what you can “give back” to her. She’ll be thrilled to impart some advice to you.

    1. Venus Supreme*

      (Thinking about this more…) One question I usually like to ask is, “So did you always know from an early age you wanted to be a Teapot Researcher?” It usually garners a laugh because the answer is usually no. I like this question because it’s a good segue into that person’s story of how their career evolved.

  3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP, you may have missed this, but you just networked (and were good at it!). So even though you may feel like you’re bad at it, your conversation with this person is wonderful and probably close to what you should do if you’re in a more “traditional” networking context (e.g., an event or conference related to your field).

    Definitely ask her out for coffee, be warm and professional (not in a stilted way) in your communications with her, offer her 2-3 times/days when you’re free and note that if those dates don’t work, you’re happy to work around her schedule. After coffee, follow up with a warm email conveying your gratitude, and if appropriate based on your conversation and industry norms, send a LinkedIn request at that time.

    For what it’s worth, when I do informational/networking coffee with with junior folks, and when they ask how they can be of help to me in the future, I ask them to work hard, be awesome to their peers, and pay it forward (i.e., when they’re more senior, be willing to have coffee with junior folks who want to join your field). It’s also fun because after about 5 years, those junior folks become your peers (even if you’re still more senior), and then you get to work together through coalitions, partnerships, etc. So don’t worry too too much on the mutual benefit aspect—if she didn’t like you, she wouldn’t have given you her card.

  4. AdAgencyChick*

    OP, she wouldn’t have offered you her card if she hadn’t gotten genuine pleasure out of her interaction with you. She may have benefited from mentorship or a chance connection early in HER career, and enjoys paying it forward.

    If you do as Alison suggests — make it an interaction where it’s clear you don’t feel entitled to her help, and make it easy for her to work with you — then I bet she’ll be pleased to have met you and she’ll enjoy seeing you take the next step in your career, whether it is with her organization or another one. That’s what she gets out of it — the pleasure of knowing that she was able to be useful to someone she took an interest in.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Also, someday you might be able to pay her back in a more direct way. If her industry is anything like mine, it’s hard to find good junior people. I don’t have as much contact with the juniors these days, so when I need to recruit more for my team, I turn to people who have worked for me in the past who are now working somewhere else, and ask them if they know anyone.

      Who knows, someday she might need to hire someone and it might not be you, but you’ll know just the person.

      1. fposte*

        The other thing is that paying it forward is huge in networking; a lot of people had somebody senior extend a hand, and this is their way of keeping the chain going. So if you can do this for somebody later on, OP, I’m sure she’d consider herself recompensed.

        1. Julia*

          I came here to say this. Just do the same thing for someone junior a few years/decades down the road, OP.

  5. Emilia Bedelia*

    Definitely add them on LinkedIn- that’s what it’s made for. Look at their history- it can help you get ideas for questions to ask. “How did you transition from working at Giant Teapots Corp to Tiny Coffee Shop?” “From your LinkedIn description of working at Chocolates Unlimited, it sounds like your job had a lot of tempering responsibilities, which I’m interested in taking on- what were some challenges you faced?” Come in prepared with questions, but don’t feel like you have to ask all of them- you can let the conversation go as it will. The questions will just help you frame what kinds of things you want to learn about.

    I used to do a lot of informational interviews, and my favorite question to ask was “Looking back on your career, if you had the chance to do things differently when you were in my shoes, what would you have done knowing what you know now?”. I got some amazing advice from this question!
    Another good one (inspired by Alison’s magic interview question :) ) is “Thinking back on people who you’ve worked with who have been really good in this position, what did they do that made them exceptional?”

    People LOVE being helpful. If you’re gracious, respectful, and eager to learn, I’ve found that people will be really accommodating if you show an interest in their work, so take it as a excellent sign that this woman has made it clear that she wants to keep in touch!

  6. Turtle Candle*

    The “gratitude and appreciation” thing is huge huge huge. I really enjoy mentoring newer members of my profession, whether at my own office or not, and honestly, a heartfelt, “Thank you so much for talking with me, this was really helpful” brightens up my whole week. (A thank-you email or note after the fact is particularly nice, but a genuine “thank you” in the moment is enough to cheer me up!)

    It’s especially wonderful when I get an out-of-the-blue email weeks or months later where someone says, “Thank you again for talking with me about rice sculpture documentation! I just landed a job doing rice grain specification writing, and I thought you’d like to know.” I do like to know–it makes me happy to know that I’ve helped someone. And while the junior person probably doesn’t have any networking ability to help me right now, it does go in the back of my mind, such that if it would be helpful for me to chat with someone about the rice grain specification end of the industry I might go, “Oh, Rozza works on that! I could drop her a line.” It’s not a conscious tit-for-tat, I’m not making those contacts because I might need something from them in the future–I really do do it because I like to help people starting out in the industry–but it’s a nice side effect of spending the time.

    The only time I’ve ever felt taken advantage of by someone who wanted an informational interview was someone who clearly thought that “informational interview” was code for “get a job via a sekrit back door;” he was clearly sour about it when it became clear that I was in fact just going to talk to him about the industry and so forth rather than fast-tracking his application with my manager (who does the hiring for the department); he showed relatively little interest in anything I had to say about the job, the industry, what it takes to excel, etc., except as it immediately related to “tricks” to get hired, and was visibly annoyed when I didn’t give him any tricks (because I didn’t have any, honestly, but even if I had, that would not have been the way to convince me to share them!). The persistent “thanks for nothing” vibe meant that not only was I not going to fast-track his application, I would be candid about finding him demanding and difficult.

    But that’s thankfully been rare in my experience. Most people have been lovely, and that’s why I keep doing it.

    1. CM*

      Absolutely — I had coffee with a very senior person who I ordinarily would never even have the opportunity to talk to. I followed up by email about six months and a year later, once to tell her that I was still finding her advice valuable and passing it on to friends (with a story about that), and once to give her an update on how I implemented her advice. She was very appreciative and I think that worked a lot better than sending, say, an article she might be interested in.

    2. Colette*

      And the gratitude and appreciation includes things like being respectful of her time (showing up when you said you would, only rescheduling if absolutely necessary, keeping in infrequent contact in a way that doesn’t demand anything from her, etc.).

    3. Jen RO*

      I also love mentoring people and I am genuinely happy when they move on to better and brighter things, even if it means leaving my company. I think I am actually a bit pushy sometimes when I go to job fairs or talk to random acquaintances… but it’s because I lucked into this profession and I wish I had someone to tell me about it years before! And the “side-effects” are nice too: the profession is very new in this country, my company is one of the few to hire inexperienced people, and I trained most of them. As they leave, they become very useful contacts who can vouch for me when I decide to change jobs.

      (I am replying to you because, based on your example, we seem to be in the same – or similar – field.)

  7. monkeywithacold*

    Early on in my career, I was given the advice to email a networking contact every so often with a relevant article or something similar you came across that you thought they might be interested in. This helps keep the relationship feeling organic, less like you’re just pitching the person to hire you, and keeps you on his or her radar. It’s been pretty helpful for me as I find maintaining contact with people I’ve met at events to be somewhat awkward. It’s a built in excuse to get in touch. Good luck!

  8. Chickaletta*

    All I got to say is that I applaud you for being ahead of the game and thinking about how to approach this relationship. When I think about the wasted opportunities and meetings I had with much more senior connections as a young person, it makes me cringe. Young professionals have so many more resources for advice at their fingertips – literally – with the internet and websites like this one, it’s a wonder if ya’ll aren’t running the world in ten years.

    1. Regina 2*

      Agreed; good for you, OP! I’ve been working for over a decade now, and I still feel too junior/dumb to talk to anyone my senior. I just have no idea what to talk to them about, since their jobs are so much more complex than mine, and because I’m NOT a fresh grad, they would expect more out of me. I tend to have a more organic approach, so I feel like I could do it well, but as mentioned in the letter, I can never recognize opportunities when they’re in front of me. I really need it spelled out.

      You’ve reminded me to try harder though, so thanks for that!

      1. zora*

        Me too. I feel like I’ve stalled out in my career, so I feel kind of like an idiot reaching out to senior people, since I feel like I’m admitting I suck. But I need to try harder!

  9. VP*

    I’ve been in both situations. As the junior person, I’ve been able to throw junior level people’s resumes to my contacts looking to hire. I also got a former boss hired at my new org as a consultant.

  10. Cassandra*

    OP, you are clearly made of win and awesome, and also, what Princess Consuela Banana Hammock said above — NETWORKING UR DOIN IT RITE. My only suggestion is to have a few business cards around when you go places, even social places; you just never know when something serendipitous will happen, because that’s the nature of serendipity.

    Something the two of you might connect over, especially considering how you met, is professional development. “What are the good conferences in teapot spout design?” is a decent coffee question.

  11. SystemsLady*

    OP, my colleague and I are on the younger side and we were tickled pink when somebody working for one of our clients in a field that can “career up” to ours (to go in at entry level normally requires a college degree) asked us for advice. A lot of it was confidence building, because he had the skills for sure! Within a few months he sought out and got a promotion to the borderline between the two fields…two years later, he’s working in our role for a sister company! He was great at the fundamentals and we knew he’d be great at the job, so we were very happy for him.

    She would benefit both from knowing she’s helping somebody who she clearly saw potential in join her industry (perhaps her company!) and from that warm and fuzzy feeling you get helping somebody with the same zeal for your field you have. If she gave you her business card, by all means send her an email! She wouldn’t have bothered if she didn’t want you contacting her.

    I know I’d gladly help somebody in that way again, and can even list a couple names I’d talk to without a question (or even refer to my boss) if they asked at the moment.

  12. Bork*

    Ooo this made me smile! Good luck, OP!

    Question – so she accepts your invite to meet for coffee, you buy right? I mean, I know you’d offer to buy their drink or scone or whatnot but if a junior person/new grad asked to meet, I would be delighted but I would also insist on paying.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The OP should make a move to pay, because she’s the one who did the inviting, but the more senior person will almost certainly insist on paying.

      1. Cassandra*

        As generally-senior person, yes, this is how I handle it.

        I don’t get huffy if there’s no offer to pay from the inviter, but I can’t guarantee no one would.

        1. Bibliovore*

          In the politeness dance- the jr. person should be prepared to pay but graciously allow the senior person to pick up the check.
          I always pick up the check.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Totally agreed. This will sound weird, but it’s similar to first date etiquette. The person who asked to go to coffee offers to pay, but the senior person should insist on paying (or at a minimum, should insist on splitting the bill).

  13. designbot*

    Don’t underestimate how valuable it is to senior people to be able to hire talented junior staff. I *wish* I had junior people I could call on and say hey, come in for an interview because even though the position isn’t posted yet I need help ASAP.

  14. Frannie*

    But what you can definitely give back is gratitude and appreciation, and I wouldn’t discount how much those can make it worth it for the other person

    I think this right here is the entire reason I love to mentor and support junior people. It makes me feel so good when they tell me I give good advice or they are grateful for my help. Be sincere, but definitely go ahead and pile on the appreciation.

  15. Girasol*

    I’m an older worker and I’m delighted when someone younger in my field wants to stay in touch. Look at it from the other side: as hard as it is to get traction in your career when you’re young, it’s hard as well to keep career traction in fields that informally define 35 or 40 as “over the hill” and no longer valuable. If you ask your contact to lunch to talk shop and trade perspectives you may be making her day.

  16. Jessesgirl72*

    I think the OP got the strong impression about “mutually beneficial” from the comments section. It wasn’t that long ago (the OP who wanted to know why her networking wasn’t getting her job and board seat offers, IRRC) that most of the comments focused on that. As someone as Jr as the OP, it’s easy to miss that most of that response was directed at the OP’s mistaken idea of how networking works, and her belief that it was that “sekrit backdoor hiring process” Turtle Candle referenced, and is so off-putting.

    OP, it’s all about your attitude. Be gracious and don’t expect anything to come of it (especially immediately) and you’ll be fine. You did an awesome job just being yourself, before you knew just who she was. Do that some more.

  17. Pineapple Incident*

    I love that someone wrote in with this letter! This is such useful advice- it’s hard to navigate those next steps when you’re new to the networking thing and have received a generous gesture from a more senior acquaintance.

    Bravo OP- you’re so awesome!!

  18. phil*

    I’ve been both the younger and the older. One thing I learned is that different mentees need different mentoring styles. One might profit from just shooting the breeze-a much undervalued activity-while another might want concrete steps toward something.
    I loved both sides. I had great mentors and I hope I was a good mentor.

  19. Bibliovore*

    It is important that you understand that the senior person perceived something special in your conversation. I am baffled when I make an effort to give someone my card and suggest that we set up a time to meet to talk about professional opportunities and that person never follows up. The only time I think of it is when I run into them again in a professional context. I understand that people get busy and have other obligations but do think that just an email saying that they enjoyed the conversation and are swamped at the present goes a long way for pleasant feelings.

    I now see from your email how the jr. person might feel awkward or not understand that
    1. I do not hand out my card to just anyone
    2. I do have a potential opportunity in mind for the person
    3. I expect that when they do follow up they understand that they need to be prepared for the meeting by researching the work that they see themselves doing in the future and have some knowledge of my work.
    4. and I am paying it forward. I am in my profession because someone did exactly that. Here is my card, give me a call and I will talk to you about being a librarian.

  20. OP*

    Thank you so much for your response and thanks to the commenters for all their thoughtful additions! (I’m sorry I wasn’t able to sit down and write a response yesterday — I was working the late shift — but I was eagerly refreshing the page and reading them all as they came in.) It was so reassuring to hear that my instincts were pretty much correct, and I’m going to bookmark this page so I can be prepared the next time this comes up. I feel much more confident now and am looking forward to making some changes soon. Thanks again, everyone!

  21. Louise*

    Definitely invited her to coffee ASAP. Also, after 4 years you’re not a recent grad, you’re a professional. And do not call any woman an “older lady” unless she’s your 98 year old abuela. Good luck!

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