How to Turn Coffee into a Career-Boosting Connection

UPDATED: December 12, 2014
PUBLISHED: December 12, 2014

Please add me to your LinkedIn network, your email dings you. Like you, I receive lots of LinkedIn invitations to “connect.” Most have no personal note of how we’ve met or what we have in common—so it’s not yet a real connection.

In my book Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life, I share that Wave Makers (people who started a change in their organizations, communities or the marketplace) have Idea Partners. These are people around them who help shape their plans, influence their direction and tell them what they don’t know or can’t see. Idea Partners help them learn.

That learning can’t happen through a generic LinkedIn request or superficial email. As much as we are dependent upon technology and media, nothing can replace the conversation for gaining insight.

Allen Stephenson, a Wave Maker in my book, founded Southern Tide apparel company when he was a college student. I had so many questions: How did he know what to do when he was such a novice? With no experience in apparel or running a business, how did he have the confidence and knowledge to make the right decisions and achieve such success? What were the first steps that got him started?

So he shared how he spent the first few months of his new business: “I talked to people who used to own apparel manufacturing companies, financial people and so many others. I was taking people out to lunch like crazy—every day, three, four or five people. And some of them are still involved today. I didn’t, and still don’t, know how to do all this stuff, but I did know how to say, ‘This is the vision, the dream. We’re going to do this and make clothes in the way that I’m imagining, and we can do this together.’”

These coffees and lunches created Stephenson’s path for learning how to grow his business—and for forming essential long-term relationships. He met dozens and dozens of people as he discovered how to develop his vision. And each meeting added to his knowledge and direction.

Here are six tips for turning a simple coffee or meal into a helpful and meaningful career-boosting connection:

1. Share why you value that person’s input. Most people are totally willing to offer advice and help others, as long as time allows. It helps if, when you ask to get coffee, you tell them why you value their experience and knowledge. Maybe you want to emulate their career or you want to create a business like theirs—just reveal to them why their perspective is so important to you.

2. Treat the get-together as a relationship starter, not an information grab. No one likes to feel that they are part of an impersonal transaction or that a latte is being exchanged for a strategic introduction. Find common ground and get to know each other before anything else.

3. Be specific. If you ask for time to meet, let them know exactly what you are looking for and why. Explain that you would like their advice on how to find the right investors, make a move from IT to sales or write your first book—whatever it might be. This information helps ensure that even a short coffee is productive.

4. Be helpful. Remember your goal should be a relationship and business friendship, not a one-time transaction. Look for ways you can support them, too. Even small gestures can help define that it’s a two-way relationship.

5. Say thank you. People have to carve out room in their schedules to meet for coffee or lunch, so it’s essential to show that you genuinely appreciate the time taken and advice given. After thanking them in person, send a follow-up note afterward, or even a favorite book you think they would enjoy, to further express your gratitude and continue to grow the bond.

6. Stay in touch. A quick story to illustrate my point: I met Georgia when she was a senior in college through a business colleague, simply because she had a degree in my field. After we met, she’d send short emails with quick updates on her internship and then her first job. She called occasionally and asked for quick advice about an upcoming decision or conversation. She always respected my time, and her friendly check-ins created a lasting relationship, one that started with a Skype chat and then coffee. Rather than treating those as information transactions while looking for her first job, Georgia worked on the relationship, seeing it as something more valuable—and we still keep in touch today.

As you kick off ideas for a new business or redirect your career, remember that a latte treated with special care can become much more than a quick chat at Starbucks.

See what Jim Rohn deems the 8 traits of healthy relationships—and start working on one today.

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at