8 Insider Secrets for Meeting with a Senior Executive

The older I get, the more I care about the next generation of PR pros and their career development. This may stem from having teenage children; I worry about their preparation for life, their careers, and their happiness. Thus, I happily offer college students and new graduates some hard-won wisdom whenever they ask.

Here’s what a lot of today’s college graduates don’t understand: I am not alone. I am not the only company, executive, or business owner who’s eager to lend a hand, an ear, or an opinion. It’s pretty rare for a college graduate considering a PR career to reach out to me for some counsel, or just to grab a coffee—and I wish it wasn’t.

Sure, it might be intimidating for a twenty-something kid to ask a stranger for a favor. This is especially true if that stranger could help (or hurt) their budding career. However, as Gary Vaynerchuk once suggested, “There’s just no reason to not do something you love.”

How can you know whether you’ll enjoy a career until you’ve asked some folks who have been there and done that? One of our core values at SHIFT is being #connected. Reach out and connect!

Of course, there are some ground rules. Most senior execs (myself included) are quite busy. Not all will respond or appreciate the outreach. The biggest danger is the volume of one-off requests. Meeting with one, two, or even ten would-be careerists would be easy to do over the course of several months. Getting 100 or more such requests might kill the execs’ enthusiasm.

So, if you are seeking an informational interview, here are 8 suggestions:

1. Use LinkedIn. Hook yourself into the networks that are frequented by the executives you want to meet. For example, I am more inclined to meet with the “friend of a friend” than someone I don’t know at all. This is not a requirement, but a good suggestion. Use LinkedIn (or your professor) to get a known 3rd party to vouch for you.

2. Do your homework. Your questions (both in your initial outreach and follow-up) should be specific to the individual. Your questions should imply you know something about their career, industry, and company. Again, use LinkedIn! Most of the time, execs’ tout their accomplishments boldly on their profiles. Remember that everyone wears an invisible sign around their necks that read, “Make me feel important!” even senior executives.

3. Bundle. Think about it from the executive’s perspective: “You want to meet me? Cool. Do you know three or more fellow students who might want to tag along for the same reasons? Better. By meeting a handful of folks, I’ll multiply my do-gooder feelings for the day.” (Having said that, the student organizer of this event does score more points than the other attendees because they have shown initiative.)

4. Recognize the value of time. Ask the senior executive for 15 minutes of coffee time versus 60 minutes of grilling them with questions. Keep it loose. If 15 minutes turn into 30 or more minutes, it’s all good, but set expectations up front and show that you’re respectful of time.

5. Proof before you send your request. No busy executive wants to meet with a student or recent graduate who can’t write well or who don’t take the time to at least proofread their request. Typos and grammatical errors show that you don’t pay attention to details. And P.S.: dress for success.

6. Come to listen, and not to show. You can bring your portfolio, but only pull it out if you’re asked to. Your insightful, genuine questions will say far more about you than your college writing assignments.

7. Follow-up fast and show you paid attention. A thank-you note is a must—just like Mom told you after every birthday party. Yet, there are two types of thank-you notes. There are the simplistic “thanks for your time and great advice!” note, and then there’s the note that your newfound advisor is eager to pass along to HR and other hiring managers.

A great thank-you note includes the following:
– Genuinely insightful conclusions drawn from the meeting
– Unobtrusively-placed links to your work that show off your savvy
– Polite questions regarding any potential next steps, if it seems there might be a relevant role open in their company, or if the senior executive hinted that they might be willing to pass you on to an industry contact

Want to make a great impression? Send two follow-ups: one by email for immediacy and one, handwritten, on paper because it’s rare and thus attention-getting.

Think of this as the beginning of a “lightweight” relationship. Watch that senior exec’s career from afar and note the big changes. Follow-up from time to time (I recommend twice per year) with a gracious note, update, or question.

8. Know your place. Just because the senior exec met with you doesn’t automatically make them your new rabbi. They have no further obligation, and won’t appreciate being pestered after the meeting. As much as you appreciated their time constraints in your original outreach, you should be doubly patient in long-term follow-up.

Eagerness. Initiative. Motivation. These are the traits you’ll most often hear successful executives ask for in prospective hires. Asking for (and getting) that informational interview shows initiative, and showcases your passion. Why wouldn’t you want to start off your career that way?

For current PR pros, this approach is equally relevant for building relationships with the media. But you knew that.

Want to get in touch? Connect with me here on LinkedIn.

Todd Defren
Founding Partner

A version of this post originally appeared on PR-Squared.


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