Friday, October 2, 2015

Tip for Students: Follow Up, but in the Right Way

I'm still new to mentoring and I have a lot to learn. I give well-meaning advice to students that I wish that I had been told at their age, but my advice-giving skills need some refinement. I laughed this week as my poor advice-giving accidentally set a student up to fail. I hope that she isn't reading this because I don't mean to put her on the spot, but I will use her as an example. To her credit, she was the only student to follow up from that conference.

Student networking takes a different form than professional networking. Most professional networking is to meet new colleagues, share ideas, and learn how we can help each other in our respective positions. Students are mostly concerned with gaining experience through internships and entry-level jobs. Most don't have business cards but are instead are told to come armed with short “elevator” speeches and resumes in hand, which may or may not be good advice depending on the situation.

Most students collect business cards. I collected a drawer full as a student and even more as a professional. No one told me that a business card collection is mostly useless. Business cards offer short-term ways of communicating and are only worth anything if the recipient then initiates communication. Whenever I meet students at a business card exchange, I always advise them to follow up.

Yesterday, I received an email from a student who I met at the career prep conference that I helped with on Saturday. Her email contained the short message, “This email is just a follow-up to you per your suggestion.” I had to chuckle at my own failings for giving her incomplete advice. Her follow-up email to me was essentially useless. I hadn't properly conveyed why she should contact me to follow up.

First, there was the issue of identification. I met many students over those the conference's two days and I could not remember her just by her name. It would have been helpful for her to give me a short reminder of who she is, what she's studying, and a brief synopsis of what we discussed. Some people can instantly match name, face, and conversation. I am not one of those people unless a meeting was particularly memorable.

Second, there was the issue of her motivation for contacting me. Her email did not tell me what she wanted from me. Did I tell her something that she wanted to clarify or follow up on? Did she want to continue our conversation or start a new conversation? Did she want career advice? Did she want a job? Did she want to establish a relationship? I had no way of knowing without asking.

She responded that she would like to send me her resume. I am surprised that students in their teens and early 20s are still being given the advice that a traditional, static resume is the go-to resource in business settings. She is a sophomore, which puts her likely graduation date two and a half years away. She hadn't mentioned or asked about internships or part-time work as a student, so I assumed that her goal is post-graduation employment. Her current resume would be two and a half years out of date by the time I looked it again. Not that I would look at it again. I do not keep a database of resumes and therefore any resume that I receive is immediately thrown away or deleted (sorry students who have handed me resumes in the past, but it's true).

I responded that rather than send me her resume, she could connect with me on LinkedIn. I noted that she does not have a LinkedIn profile. Surely her generation is very familiar with social media. LinkedIn is a living resume, one that she can update over the years. If I was interested in potentially hiring her in the future, LinkedIn is my database of resumes.

Even that was incomplete advice on my part. It's not enough to simply connect with me on LinkedIn and never contact me again. Establishing a relationship would be the best advice that I can give her, regardless of her age and goals. I don't know her from any other engineering student. What makes her an individual apart from the rest? Who is she, what are her passions, what can I teach her, and can I help her along her journey? These are the questions I really care about, not getting her a job.

There are so many ways to establish this kind of relationship: follow-up conversational emails, follow-up meetings, follow-up phone calls, an informational interview, and interaction via social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, or this blog. If I get to know a student over the years, I'm much more likely to help him/her over any other student who I met once a while ago.

Students: please follow up, but don't worry solely about getting a job or widely sending out your resume. Focus on your formation. Contemplate your direction and goals. Think about how you can learn from professions, not how they can help get you a job. Form relationships first and foremost. Everything else will come.

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