The standard networking email ("Can I buy you a coffee and pick your brain?") strikes dread in the hearts of busy executives, even those who love mentoring and helping people. "It's the worst [networking] email you can receive," said Ashley Mayer, a partner at Social Capital during a panel at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
A much better strategy is to be specific, said Mayer, and to ask for help with a particular project or thorny issue. Also: Make sure to throw in a lot of questions about what the person you are hoping to connect actually cares about. "People like talking about their experiences," she said.
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Four other tips emerged from the panel, which also included Trinity Ventures partner Anjula Acharia and Foursquare CMO Kinjil Mathur:
- Date your network. That's the term that Mathur uses to make sure her networking is relational rather than transactional. "I keep times reserved for breakfasts and after-work drinks," she said. "It should feel like a friend group." This way, when you actually need help with something specific, you've made a true connection beforehand.
- Use social media to your advantage. "Having that passive knowledge of what is happening with your network helps," said Mayer. "Hey, you got a new puppy" is a good way to break the ice when asking for advice.
- Network even if you don't have time to. Women are often less active networkers than men, partly because of other commitments such as child care and eldercare, and partly because they sometimes feel that to get ahead, they must focus on work. That's a mistake. "In my industry, the men are going out for whiskey after a meeting and I don't get that invite," said Mathur. So she does it herself. "The time is blocked off and I feel zero guilt."
- Force yourself to reach out even if it's hard. When Acharia moved to Silicon Valley from England, she knew no one. She attended a networking meeting and, though incredibly uncomfortable, forced herself to compliment one woman's scarf. "It turned out she knew everyone in the room," she recalled. "She got me a job and ended up, later, making me a partner [at Trinity]."