The concept of “coffee meetings” and the phrase “informational meeting” was foreign when I was in the Army. My unit’s “open door policy,” designed to encourage young soldiers to seek mentorship or report issues not addressed by line supervisors, in reality equated to avoiding senior leaders at all costs. It was just unthinkable for me, in the Army, to ask someone to meet with me so I could learn about his or her career. For one thing, no one had the time for that, and two, it just wasn’t done.
In the civilian world, however, informational meetings and phone calls happen all the time. You’ve likely heard the ever-present advice that “you have to network!” — it’s true, but often leaves service members like us wondering how exactly to network with those in the industry we want to work in, when our network is all still in the military.
That’s where informational meetings, also known as coffee dates, come in handy. The first step is to identify a few people who have a career you’d like to learn more about. Could be a friend of a friend, someone on LinkedIn, or a person you notice on a company’s “about” page. Once you’ve found a few people, craft an email that explains why you’d like to speak to him or her, a bit about your background, and a line or two about what you’d like to pursue. Here’s an outline to get you going:
Subject: Career transition question from a (soldier/airman/etc) curious about (industry or position)
Your career as an (insert job position here) seems fascinating, with how (insert a relevant detail about a challenge or project that position faces).
I’d love to buy you a coffee and learn about your background and what made you choose (industry). I’m leaving the military in (# of months/weeks/days) and exploring potential career paths. If you have a few minutes, I’d love to sit down with you to discuss (something you’re interested in about his or her career).
If you can’t meet, would you be free for a short phone call on (give two dates and time options)?
If you can add something you have in common to the note, even better. This could be a shared alma mater, military branch, hometown, hobby, mutual friend, whatever. Stalk personal websites (and of course, LinkedIn), to see if you share anything in common that’ll help you personalize the note.
It’s hard, but don’t be shy. Coffee meetings and networking phone calls are more common than you think. Most people are flattered when you ask them to share their experience and give you advice. Just keep in mind this tactic works best with those who aren’t famous or at the CEO level; your best bet is to aim for someone that’s either in the position you want at a parallel company, or a few steps ahead.