Each Monday, BND staff writer Brittney M. Helmrich will be answering your questions about careers, leadership, office life and social media in her advice column, Dear Brittney. Got a professional problem you just can't figure out? Send your conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Dear Brittney" to have your questions featured.
My job involves a good amount of networking and relationship-building, so I receive a lot of invitations to get coffee, drinks and lunch from people who want to discuss how we can work together. Of course, I can't justify attending all of them, because I'd never get any work done. What's the best way to pick and choose, and how do I politely turn down all the other invitations without losing a networking contact?
- Overwhelmed & Overbooked
Dear Overwhelmed & Overbooked,
The thing about networking is, it's supposed to help your career. But when you're drowning in meeting invitations from strangers, it can feel like it's hurting your professional life more than anything. Your time is valuable — that's why you have a job in the first place — and if you're forced to spend too much of it getting coffee or coming up with polite rejections, of course your work is going to suffer.
Larger networking events that are attended by many people are a great way to create new contacts, so you should absolutely start or continue attending those. But these private meetings you're talking about? You need to not let them take up your entire calendar. I have two suggestions for you: First, come up with some hard and fast rules about what kinds of people you'll meet with, and second, allot a certain amount of time per week to these meetings, and use that to limit yourself.
So, what kinds of rules should you be setting? Come up with a checklist, and make sure that you're accepting invitations only from people who can tick off all the boxes on it. For example, only take meetings with people who can help you at your current job, can help you further your career at another company if you're looking to leave your position, or can connect you with important clients, etc. I think the absolute best thing you can do is limit your one-on-one meetings to people you've worked with before as much as you possibly can. For example, if you're a journalist who works with PR pros often, accept invitations from those you've worked with on past stories, but turn down those you don't know who email you out of the blue. You're more likely to have a productive meeting with someone who is already familiar with your work and that you have a history with, than you are with someone looking to make an introduction. In any case, the criteria you choose has to fit your specific job, but make sure that when you come up with the list, you stick to it.
Now, for your time limits. Come up with a reasonable amount of time each week that you'd feel comfortable with leaving the office for coffee or lunch meetings. Make sure that there is enough time for you to accept important invitations, but not so much that it negatively affects your work. Then come up with an amount of time, if any, that you feel comfortable dedicating to networking after-hours. When invitations come along, accept the ones that best fit your checklist, turn away those that don't, and stop saying yes when you've promised away all of your allotted time. Ask to move meetings to the following week, if you must, but don't schedule more than you've already decided is reasonable.
Of course, this doesn't make saying no any easier, so that's where you need to come up with a few response templates that you can easily modify. Normally, I'd advocate against copy-pasting a form email — it's a bad idea for pitches, job applications and just about everything else under the sun — but in this case it can help you spend less time coming up with what to say and more time actually working. Explaining that your calendar is booked is a good start. Explaining that you can only take meetings with people you've already established a working relationship with (if that's what you choose) to those trying to plan vague introductory meetings can help, too. In this case, encourage the other person to stay in touch via email or phone so that you can establish such a working relationship. Whatever your reasons are, have them saved and ready for when you do have to turn down an invitation. Just make sure you take a few minutes to personalize and proofread — if you think they'll be upset about you saying no, imagine how they'll feel if you write in the wrong name. Use your templates, but use them wisely.
In an ideal world, I'd tell you that anyone who gets so offended by you rejecting their invitation for dinner or drinks that they refuse to work with you anymore is not worth working with in the first place. The truth is, sometimes the people with the most important connections aren't the most understanding. Sometimes they won't meet your checklist requirements, but not going would be worse for your career. Sometimes, you'll have to bite the bullet and take the meeting even if you know it won't be productive. In those situations, say yes to the invitation, but try to limit it as much as possible. If they ask for lunch, try to negotiate for coffee instead, as it can take up less time. Say that, though you'd love to meet for longer, you're pressed for time because of a huge project or a deadline. They should understand and respect that your work comes first, and agree to keep the meeting brief.