BY NICK ZARZYCKI

Two years ago I wanted a job in management consulting, which is a notoriously difficult industry to break into. Top firms like McKinsey & Company and BCG regularly reject 99 per cent of applicants, most of whom are from elite schools like Harvard and Stanford. I was a non-business major at the University of British Columbia, and knew very little about the industry. But I noticed that the chief executive of McKinsey & Company – Dominic Barton – was also a UBC alumnus. So I found his email address and sent him this message:

Dear Mr Barton,

I’m a 4th year student at UBC Vancouver, studying History and Economics, and I recently came across this photo of you in the university library’s archives:

[here I inserted an image of Barton that I had found after a bit of digging in the UBC archives]

I wanted to ask you, simply, about what was going through your mind at the time (December, 1983). Like many of my classmates – especially those who are pursuing careers in banking, consulting or law – I think and sometimes worry about my place in the world and what it is that I want to accomplish after graduation.

You’ve been asked on many occasions to talk about how you view the future. I’d like to get a glimpse of how you thought about your own future when you were in my position.

The next day, Barton sent me a surprisingly open and introspective 600 word reply about the way he felt when he graduated from university. He said that my email out of the blue was “a terrific jolt” as he was about to turn 50 years old. He also mentioned that he was in Vancouver from time to time and would be happy to answer any questions I had about consulting.

A few months later, I learned that Barton would be at UBC to accept an honourary degree, so I emailed him again and asked whether he would be interested in grabbing coffee. We ended up meeting in Vancouver for an hour, and that meeting eventually led to an interview with McKinsey & Company.

I didn’t end up getting the job, but the experience taught me something very important: randomly emailing people and asking them to coffee was a good idea, and I should start doing it more.

What are coffees for?

Since my McKinsey episode, ‘going for coffee’ has become my go-to method for getting to know people I want to work with. If I’m interested in hiring someone for a project I’m working on, I will ask them to coffee. If I want to learn more about a company I want to work for, instead of going to a networking event, I will simply ask someone who works there to coffee. If I want to learn about an industry, I will ask someone who works in that industry to coffee.

To some people this seems like an awkward or unusual request.

You just want to ‘have coffee?’

Like, for no reason?

Like, a date?

Actually, yes, the logic behind getting coffee with someone you want to maybe work with is similar to the logic behind first dates. You get to physically meet someone. You get answers to important questions, like: are they crazy? Do they seem honest? Are they who they’re advertising they are (e.g. do they actually seem to know anything about writing/marketing/selling goats)? Are they interesting to talk to? Could you see yourself working with this person in the future? Coffees let the part of our brain that is in charge of first impressions capture and process the millions of data points that are left out of an email conversation.

How do I ask someone to coffee?

The best way to ask someone to coffee is with a brief email that explains who you are and why you’re interested in meeting that person. Something like:

Dear [name],

I’m a [student/position] at [university/organization] and I’ve been interested in learning more about [their company/their project/their job posting] ever since I read about it [in a publication/on your blog/on Linkedin]. Are you free to meet for coffee some time in the next week?

If you can find a way to sound more interesting, be sure to do that. The point is to be concise and not bog the person down in unnecessary detail.

This might seem hard to believe, but in Canada and the United States it is perfectly reasonable to ask pretty much anyone to a coffee, even CEOs. My meeting with the chief executive of McKinsey & Company might seem incredibly lucky and random, but I’ve discovered since then that Dominic Barton has had similar meetings with dozens of other UBC students. People in leadership positions are often genuinely interested in meeting people outside their organization, especially if that person sounds interesting over email. And especially if they are a student at their alma mater.

How do I find someone’s email?

If someone works at a company, that company will likely have a standard email format. If your target’s address isn’t listed publicly, try finding another employee’s email. If Alex Chang’s email at Google is alex.chang@google.com and you want to talk to Larry Page, try emailing larry.page@google.com. If that doesn’t work, try larrypage@google.com, lpage@google.com, larry.p@google.com, larry@google.com and page@google.com. That last one is Google co-founder Larry Page’s real email address.

What do I say during coffee?

When you finally meet someone for coffee, avoid diving right into whatever it is you want to talk about. You’re meeting a new person — start with casual conversation and get to know them a bit. At a certain point, one of you will naturally steer the conversation towards the point of your meeting. Once you’re done (coffees usually last anywhere between 30-60 minutes, but 3 hour coffees are not unheard of), make sure to follow up the next day and thank them for their time.

What if I am too nervous to ask someone to coffee?

The only way to not be nervous about doing something is to do it. You have nothing to lose, just go for it. If you live in Vancouver and want to practice having coffee with someone, email me at nicholas.zarzycki@gmail.com. ♦

Image: ‘Discussing the War in a Paris Café’ – Illustrated London News

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