Career Tips

It’s Like Asking for Directions

By Lisa Parker

Pretend you are in a city you’ve never been to before and you are hungry. You need to find a way to eat that isn’t too expensive. You’ve got $20 in your pocket to work with. On top of that, you are strict vegetarian. Along comes someone who seems to know the area. He’s confident, waves to those he passes in a knowing way and is sure of his surroundings. Seems like a logical person to approach for advice.

When approaching this person who is likely to have some helpful knowledge, what do you say? Let’s imagine some options.

You: Excuse me sir, I’m hungry and would like a tofu & veggie pasta salad, extra spicy, if you will. Bland food bores me. I need flavor. Perhaps a melon salad on the side. The last time I had a pasta salad it wasn’t quite enough. It left me wanting a bit more, so you can see a melon salad is in order. Yes, that sounds perfect. Some green iced tea would go nicely as a beverage. Do you happen to have any of that on you? I can give you $20.

Him: Sorry, I can’t help you. I’m not a restaurant. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

Gee, that didn’t go well at all. You were very specific with what you wanted and what you had to give in return. You made a common mistake, however, of approaching him as a solution to your problems versus as a bridge to your solution. That information simply wasn’t appropriate for what you needed from him. As a result, you gained nothing and irritated someone who may have been a great resource in the process. Shall we try again?

You: Excuse me sir, can you direct me to a nearby restaurant?

Him: Absolutely! Bob’s Rib Shack is 3 blocks down on your right.

Well, his recommendation was somewhat helpful. It’s a restaurant. A rib shack isn’t the most promising place to encounter vegetarian options. You didn’t bog him down with unnecessary information, but you may not have given him enough specifics to truly help you. Let’s try again.

You: Excuse me sir, I’m a vegetarian looking for a good place to have dinner. Are you aware of any places I might want to check out?

Him: Absolutely! Gwenyth Paltrow just opened a divine Vegan Bistro 3 blocks down on your right.

Okay, so he’s at least pointed you towards a restaurant likely to have food options you can eat. Your limited funds might be a problem. A bistro opened by a celebrity hardly screams affordable. We’re getting closer. How about another go?

You: Excuse me sir, I’m a vegetarian with $20 in my pocket looking for a good place to have dinner. Are you aware of any places I might want to check out?

Him: Absolutely! Mama Bear’s is 3 blocks down on your right. They’ve got several vegetarian options at reasonable prices.

Success! You finally provided enough information, without going overboard, for him to help you. You were specific without boxing yourself into a corner.

Okay, you can stop pretending now. The above reminds me a lot of what job seekers tend to do when networking. Then they lament over how networking doesn’t do the trick for them. Look at the approaches that failed or were less than successful. The first example is what I see most often. They make a good case of what they are looking for in a job and what they have to offer, but they do it as if that contact is the one with the potential to hire them. More often than not that person is going to be a bridge to someone else who may be hiring. Change the message. Change the approach.

Those who realize the person they are networking with may not be their direct solution do much better. The problem is, many are often too vague to get good results. The reasoning I hear most often is that people want to be flexible and not introduce limitations into the networking process. They are missing the boat. If there genuinely are limitations in what you can consider, what you qualify to do, then it is silly not to make them known. What is the harm in missing out on  hearing about things that aren’t in any way a fit?

I hope this little exercise helps you think about how you approach people for help with your search. What are you saying to those who seem to know the lay of the land better than you? What questions are you asking?


Lisa joined the Michigan State University Alumni Association as Director of Alumni Career & Business Services on May 1, 2012. Her primary focus is to develop effective networking and resource channels for experienced alumni interested in professional development and job search strategy assistance. Additionally, Lisa works directly with corporate, education, foundation and government partners seeking to attract qualified talent, retain and develop good employees, and establish collaborative relationships in line with their established goals and objectives.

With 15+ years’ experience in third party recruiting, Lisa offers a balanced understanding of both employee and employer perspectives.

Lisa is a firm advocate of the networking process and considers it a vital element in a successful job search. In addition to helping job seekers develop and best utilize networking contacts, Lisa shares her knowledge and insight-gained aiding corporate recruiting efforts-to give Spartan job seekers an edge in terms of lead sourcing, resume presentation and interview strategy.

Among Lisa’s notable accomplishments: Prima Civitas Foundation Scholar; Michigan Works Association Volunteer of the Year; Pink Slip Mid Michigan Planning Committee; career content blogger.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Michigan State University.


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