A few years ago I desperately wanted a job in management consulting, which is a notoriously difficult industry to break into. Top firms like McKinsey & Company and Boston Consulting Group regularly reject 99 per cent of applicants, most of whom come from elite schools like Harvard and Stanford. The hopes of getting an informational interview, never mind a proper job interview, were slim.
I was a non-business major at the University of British Columbia, and knew very little about the industry. But I noticed that the chief executive of McKinsey & Company – Dominic Barton – had also graduated from UBC. So I found his email address and sent him this message:
Dear Mr Barton,
I’m a 4th year student at UBC Vancouver, studying History and Economics, and I recently came across this photo of you in the university library’s archives:
[here I inserted a photograph of Barton I had found in the UBC archives]
I wanted to ask you about what was going through your mind at the time (December, 1983). Like many of my classmates, I think and sometimes worry about my place in the world and what it is that I want to accomplish after graduation.
The next day, Barton sent me a surprisingly open and introspective 600 word reply about the way he felt when he graduated from university. He said that my email out of the blue was “a terrific jolt,” as he was about to turn 50 years old. He also mentioned that he was in Vancouver from time to time, and that he’d be happy to answer any questions I had about consulting.
A few months later, I learned that Barton would be in town to accept an honorary degree from his alma mater, so I emailed him again and asked whether he would be interested in grabbing coffee. We ended up meeting in Vancouver for an hour, and that meeting eventually led to an interview with McKinsey.
Although I didn’t end up getting the job, the experience taught me something important: although it might sometimes feel weird, randomly emailing people and asking them to coffee was a magical shortcut for getting peoples’ attention and I should start doing it more.
Since my McKinsey episode, ‘going for coffee’ has become my default method for getting to know people. If I’m interested in hiring someone for a project I’m working on, instead of requesting an “informational interview”, I will ask them to coffee. If I want to learn more about a company I want to work for, I will simply ask someone who works there to coffee. If I want to learn about an industry, I will ask someone who works in that industry to coffee.
To some people this seems like an awkward or unusual request.
You just want to ‘have coffee?’ Like, for no reason? Like, a date?
Actually, yes, getting coffee with someone you maybe want to work with is very similar to going on a first date. While an informational interview can feel formal and stuffy, meeting someone in person can help immediately answer some important questions, like: Do they seem trustworthy? Are they who they’re advertising they are (e.g. do they actually seem to know anything about writing/marketing/goat futures)? Are they interesting to talk to? Could you see yourself working with this person in the future?
Coffees let the part of our brain that is in charge of first impressions capture and process the millions of data points that are left out of an email conversation or a more formal informational interview.
The best way to ask someone to coffee is with a brief email that explains who you are and why you’re interested in meeting that person. Something like:
I’m a [student/position] at [university/organization] and I’ve been interested in learning more about [their company/their project/their job posting] ever since I [read/heard] about it [in a publication/on your blog/on Linkedin]. Are you free to meet for coffee some time in the next week?
If you can find a way to sound more interesting this, please be sure to do that. The point is to be concise and not bog the person down in unnecessary detail.
This might seem hard to believe, but asking important people to coffee is a pretty regular thing in Canada and the United States. My meeting with Dominic Barton might seem incredibly lucky and random, but I’ve discovered since then that Barton has had similar meetings with dozens of other UBC students. People in leadership positions are often genuinely interested in meeting people outside their organization, especially if that person sounds interesting over email. And, for some reason, especially if they’re a student at their alma mater.
Most companies have a standard email format, so your best bet is to usually intuit what someone’s email might be based on that format. If your target’s email isn’t listed publicly, try finding another employee’s email. If Alex Chang’s email at Google is firstname.lastname@example.org and you want to talk to Larry Page, try emailing email@example.com. If that doesn’t work, try firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
When you finally meet someone for coffee, avoid diving right into whatever it is you want to talk about. You’re meeting a new person — start with a regular human conversation and get to know them a bit. Make sure you’re not over-asking. Understand that your coffee meeting isn’t about getting a job—it’s about meeting face to face with someone and establishing a connection.
At a certain point, one of you will naturally steer the conversation towards the point of your meeting. Make sure you’ve done your research and come prepared with some questions. Remember: you asked this person for coffee, so you should be the one driving the conversation forward. Be able to talk about yourself too – have your elevator pitch ready!
Once you’re done (coffees usually last anywhere between 30-60 minutes, but 3 hour coffees are not unheard of), make sure to follow up the next day and thank them for their time.
The only way to not be nervous about doing something is to do it. You have nothing to lose, just go for it.