This is a guest post from my friend David Schaffer

It’s a familiar mantra of job hunters: it’s not what you know, but who you know. So often, searching for a new job involves contacting everyone you know in your field, alerting them to your interest in a new position, and arranging to meet over coffee for a chat. These chats always seem to occur at Starbucks. You can spot them easily as they inevitably involve a duo at a small table: the candidate, energetic with a résumé in a leather portfolio; and the contact or “go-between,” impatient and looking as if he or she would rather be back at the office doing some real work.

The go-between might be a former employer; a friend of the family; a client; or maybe someone you met at a networking event who told you to call if you were ever looking to move.

coffeemeeting

The purpose of the go-between conversation – though, as part of some mysterious etiquette, neither the candidate nor the go-between would admit it – is to have a discussion of the candidate’s credentials before the go-between talks to his colleagues and friends who may be looking to hire. Although more formal interviews may follow, it is the informal Starbucks interview which will likely determine whether the candidate is even invited to apply for a position. If the Starbucks interview goes well, your résumé could be delivered to the top of the pile and you will be invited to interview with a stellar recommendation in your hip pocket; if, on the other hand, the Starbucks interview is a bust, your résumé is tossed in with the others, or worse yet, simply tossed.

As you cannot afford to blow the Starbucks interview, below is my approach, spelled out in a list of tips for the candidate

  • Remember the purpose of the meeting: the go-between will inevitably give you a list of employers to call, likely his own friends and colleagues. He will have mentally prepared this list in advance of your meeting. It is also very likely that the go-between will call his friends and colleagues after meeting with you to let them know you may be contacting them. As the go-between will inevitably give you some kind of recommendation, your only job is to make that recommendation a good one, rather than a negative one.
  • Get in and get out: don’t bore the go-between with your life story. Plan for the conversation to take no more than 15 minutes. You should only prepare to talk for five; the other ten are reserved for off-the-cuff conversation, but is generally fluff.
  • Keep the introductory small talk to a minimum – once you arrive, get your coffee and sit down, then casually embark on your prepared material.
  • First explain to the go-between what you can do for the company and then what the company can do for you.
  • Though it may seem counter-intuitive, spend as much time talking about what the company can do for you as you spend on why you’re a good fit for the company. Yes, you should discuss how this new job will further your career, and not just the company’s bottom line. The go-between desperately wants to know that this position, for which he is vouching for you, is an organic, natural progression for both the candidate and the employer. If the go-between believes that the joining of the candidate and the employer is a match made in heaven, this lends an air of inevitability to the conversation between the go-between and the employer.

You know going in to the Starbucks meeting that the go-between, at some point, will talk to an employer about you – maybe for a whole thirty seconds. You’re only interested in what the go-between tells that employer about you and, more to the point, how he says it. Your best case scenario is that the go-between tells the employer that you and the company are a natural fit that serves both parties’ interests. Therefore, you’d like the go-between to walk out of Starbucks thinking, “Matching that nice smart candidate with my friend’s firm is just another natural part in the life of that firm – not a forced union, but one predetermined by the laws of the universe. I’ll call my buddy and let him know this résumé is on its way and is a good fit.” You have a whole five minutes to convey this to the go-between, but watch out – it’s easy to make this sound insincere. Once your résumé arrives on the desk of the employer, you’ll know if you succeeded in your meeting with the go-between. If you did your job, you’ll hear from the employer within the week. If you didn’t do your job, well… time to call another go-between.

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