You need to ask this question in your networking meetings

Personal relationships are essential to your long-term career success. I’ve talked a lot about the types of connections in your life in this blog series – hot, warm, and cold – and how to use them during the job search. In all your cold meetings, it’s important to ask one question above all others. The question is:

What is the biggest challenge you’re facing in your organization?

Why is this question so vital?

First, it’s bold. The other person may not be expecting it, or have reflected on it recently. This works to your benefit. Asking this question demonstrates that you’ve prepared for the meeting at hand. It also shows an interest to understand their business and its challenges. When I’ve asked this question in the past I am often met with a surprised look followed by the person reflecting on their experience. This helps you know you are getting an authentic answer. This question also sets you up nicely for your ‘pitch’.

Once the person explains their challenge, you have an opportunity to identify the ways your skill set can help them with that challenge. For instance, let’s say your cold connection mentioned that her team is struggling to analyze their social media impact. They lack either the knowledge or the capacity on their team to get it done. You now know they need help with this. If you happen to have experience with social media, you can say, “Oh, what a coincidence. I have a few years experience managing social media accounts; it sounds like my skill set would be useful to your team.” You have now connected their need to your skill set. You position yourself as the person who can help them solve their challenge.

This is a brilliant way of going about the conversation because, at the end of the day, people need to solve their challenges. If you can offer them a solution, you will win big points. It also puts you in a nice bargaining position.

In the event that their need and your skills don’t line up, there is still a ton of value in this question. Asking this question broadens your understanding of the industry at hand. In fact, you’ve learned a key piece of information about what keeps this person up at night. This is useful information in the networking process. The goal is to understand an industry so well, that you become an expert about it without ever having worked in it.

This will, without a doubt, help you get your next job.

Let’s say you want to work in the financial services industry but you have never worked in it. How will you make this happen? By meeting with as many people as possible and asking this question. When the opportunity arises to interview for a position, you will already be highly knowledgeable. This is beneficial and sets you above other people vying for the same job.

The other benefit to being an expert in an industry is to determine if you want to work in it at all. While I was job searching, I spoke with people about the consulting field and learned as much as I could. In doing so, I determined that it might not be the right fit for me. I also learned that firms prefer to hire straight from undergraduate commerce programs, which was not a criterion I fit. Despite this, I know quite a bit about the consulting field and it is knowledge that benefits me.

I encourage you to try this question out next time you have a coffee or lunch with someone. See how they respond and what you learn. All conversations offer us the opportunity to learn. Listen, take notes, and keep track of what you hear.

It will pay off.

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