Monday 9 March 2015

The Best Career-Building Skill Ever …. Asking the Right Questions!

Because getting the right INFORMATION is the key to making sound decisions, when it comes to deciding on or developing your career. 

Therefore, learning how to ask the right questions will assist you in all aspects of career design, development and execution!

In addition to the most obvious:  job searching activities … it’s equally as essential for effective:
  1. Networking
  2. Informational Interviewing
  3. Researching companies, schooling, career directions and professions etc.
  4. Finding out about jobs while you have a job, both Internally or externally
  5. Career change or adjustment (highly essential usually for this kind of move)
  6. Pre-Retirement – to discover then secure more flexible but still income-earning opportunities
  7. Full on retirement, as well
  8. Volunteering opportunities that will enhance your career and/or life, in general
I could go on and on…. and I usually do with my clients who could stand to do more of these activities when they’re making decisions around their career futures.

Career and life go hand in hand so everything you do in your life to gather information, then make decisions carries over seamlessly into career development activities.

And while it may sound easy, I know from the hundreds of clients I see every year, that it actually isn’t. 

It takes time and self-awareness to develop this high level skill.  And once you get the gist of it, it will help you cut to the chase quickly, but politely, with people/contacts and allow you to navigate a huge subject field which can so easily go off track if you’re not steering the conversation adroitly.

And, to steer that conversation, it’s equally essential to know beforehand where you want to go.  With some flexibility to take some side-roads, should something interesting pop up along the way.

So, imagine you’re going on a road trip.  You’ve decided to drive to Las Vegas but there are many different routes you could take.  You pull out the old map (so much more fun than Mapquest) and research the many roads and states you could drive through enroute.  Then you probably do a bit more research online to figure out what cities you’d like to visit, then make a plan and go.

This is exactly what you want to do when starting an information gathering conversation with anyone. 

In essence, start having different types of conversations.

I had a client recently who was about to start her MA in a specific counselling area and was also looking for a new job.  During her interview preparation, I’d suggested she use the forthcoming degree thesis as a potential carrot for employers.  Given that this might give her a possible opportunity to align her, as yet, undecided study subject to the needs of her potential new employer could prove to be a win-win-win opportunity for her, the organization and those people the organization served.  

As our session unfolded, it became clear that she already was pursuing a certificate in another counselling discipline, around which she was very passionate.  It also turned out that she had, just the previous weekend, spent innumerable hours in the company of a principal from that very organization, while they commuted to attend a weekend workshop.  And, in the longterm, she was very interested in becoming an employee or associate of this organization.   

I asked if she’d discussed this win-win-win idea with the person in question but, unfortunately, it hadn't occurred to her.    

Oh no -- a missed opportunity?  Yes, maybe.  But it is never too late to turn it around!

I gave her a gentle nudge to reach out and ask those questions now. 

And I can hear you saying:  But if I don’t think of asking how can I get the information?

That’s where planning ahead and preparation comes in.  Here are a few ways you can take instant action, even if you haven’t quite figured out yet what your connection points are with a potential questionee.

1)      Prepare a 60 Second Sell (or elevator speech) that encapsulates a few of your key areas of expertise, interest and/or enquiry.  Obviously, you want to change this up for different avenues of enquiry.

2)      Sit down and look at the list of attendees, or exhibitors prior to heading out to a tradeshow, conference, workshop or any other networking-likely event.  Most of these events publish a list on their websites well before the date of the event.

3)      Ask for business cards from anyone you meet and -- this is KEY -- Follow-Up with them!

4)      Prepare questions and research as much as you can on the behind the scenes info related to this person (check out their LinkedIn profile, research their company’s website and do your due diligence to find as many “connection points” to YOU, as possible.  Or areas you’re good at, interested in, or seeking to develop!)

a.       Even if you have a quick Informational Interview with someone, it’s okay to ask if you might reach out to them again at a later date, if you have any more questions.  (In fact, it’s a great way to do Step 5…)

b.      It can also be a good idea to ask that person for a referral to someone else who may have some deeper or more relevant information for you as you move through your decision-making process.

5)      Maintain communication with anyone that you deem as having the potential to be a good connection for you now, or in the future.

a.       Build the connection by keeping in touch, or sending updates when you complete something they advised you to do.  Send a quick thank you email when they’ve passed you along to another colleague.  Reciprocate whenever possible and -- always always always -- offer to pay when you end up going for coffee!

This kind of awareness raising endeavor merely requires that you sit down every once in a while and “plan” a bit as to what you might say to people you encounter in your travels.

A simple “So where do you work?” or “What kind of work do you do?” can open up lines of conversation you never would have imagined.  You’ll be amazed at how few people really ask this with any kind of real interest.  And people also love to give advice so, if you can find a way to ask something that will make someone else feel good about that conversation, you’re more than half way to building a memorable moment for someone else!

Even if you’re not great on the spot, if you have your 60 second sell ready to go, then ask for their contact info, you really don’t have to say too much until the follow-up conversation, when you’ll have already prepared your questions and have mapped out what you want to ask.

All in all, this is a skill you can develop, just like your career, through a little trial and error and by just working on it until you get some traction. 

But thinking ahead is always going to be the prerequisite to having more substantial conversations and to building that muscle so you just naturally flow into this type of information gathering exchange no matter where you are or who you’re with.

So go on out there and make an effort to have more relevant conversations.  You never know what cool new thing you might learn!

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