The one question you have to ask everyone you network with

July 22, 2015, 7:00 PM UTC

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What’s the best way to network? is written by Clark Valberg, CEO of InVision.

The best way to network doesn’t involve attending a formal event and forcing uncomfortable small talk with strangers. Early on, this kind of traditional networkingcan be time-consuming, and without a ton of return. In my opinion, the best way to network is to set up informal interviews with people who you see as being two or three steps further down the career path you’re aiming for. This is a simple concept anyone can follow and repeat throughout their career, regardless of experience level. The method consists of three easy steps:

Step 1:
Identify the right people to reach out to by looking for companies or positions you’re passionate about. LinkedIn (LNKD) is a great way to do this. Ask if you can meet them for a coffee meeting in a place convenient to their office. Most people will be too busy, but a few (usually those who are most charitable with their guidance) will take you up on it—and those are the ones you want to be talking to anyway.

Step 2:
Plan the meeting, handle all the logistics, and come to the table with good questions that communicate a deep appreciation and understanding of what they do. Ask questions that are open-ended enough to give them the opportunity to share personal experiences with you. For example, you might ask, “What chain of events brought you to where you are today?” or “Walk me through a day in your job.”

Be sincerely interested in everything you can learn from this person, be respectful of their time, and be prepared. You should also share what your aspirations are, but this meeting is not the time to ask for a favor.

Step 3:
Send a follow up note or email thanking them for their time. Let them know what you learned and what part of the conversation stuck with you most. The secret to this follow up note is to include one simple question: Is there anyone else you think I should meet? This is where the networking really begins. A surprising number of opportunities are created this way.

At the end of the day, everyone has a different approach to networking. This method mitigates the natural anxieties that most people have early in their careers and is an efficient, personal way to build your network. I’ve been on both sides of the equation and have found this very effective. You may even meet your long-term mentors in the process!

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What’s the best way to network?

3 signs you’re a serial meet-and-greet networker by Shadan Deleveaux, director of sales multicultural beauty division at L’Oréal USA.

Forget what you know about networking. Do this instead by Jim Yu, CEO of BrightEdge.

3 networking mistakes you don’t know you’re making by Dan Finnigan, CEO of Jobvite.

Why face-to-face networking will never go out of style by Kevin Chou, co-founder and CEO of Kabam.

How to effectively network (even if you dread it) by David DeWolf, president and CEO of 3Pillar Global.

The only thing you need to keep in mind when networking by William Craig, founder and president of WebpageFX.

Why social media alone won’t get you a job by Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder and CEO of VaynerMedia.

NYSE President: I owe every job I’ve ever had to networking by Tom Farley, president of the NYSE.

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