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Tip of the Month – the Coffee Meeting

by: Dan Gathof, Partner – Olympia Solutions

Things that make me smh…

Exploratory meetings that generate no interviewer feedback other than possibly “he/she is great”.

We all get requests to meet with the executive who is actively looking for a new opportunity.  Our friends and colleagues put out the simple request of “can you just meet this person for 30 minutes over coffee?”  The intent of the request seems straightforward – meet with the candidate and determine if the person is a good fit for you, or perhaps for an opportunity that you may be aware of in the marketplace. 

Even though there may be little to no benefit to having the discussion, you agree to the meeting primarily out of respect for your colleague.

The next steps follow a fairly typical pattern; the exploratory meeting gets set-up in a coffee shop, the meeting lasts well over the allotted 30 minutes, the conversation covers a bit of personal background and professional history, and a few next steps are identified (“send me your resume”, “I’ll connect you with X”, email me again in 2 weeks as we may have an opening”, …). 

On top of all of this, you probably did not write yourself any notes on the meeting which could prove useful for future referrals or to jog your memory at a later date.

The requesting colleague later asks how the conversation went and your feedback typically is along the lines of “great person”, “I didn’t get a great vibe” or “I’m not really sure, I need to think about it.” 

Most likely you keep the business version of “hot potato” going by arranging another exploratory meeting with someone on your team or another close colleague.  And your guidance for conducting the next round of discussions is fairly generic – “meet with the person and tell me what you think.” 

The bottom line is that this is a wasted meeting.  You did not use the initial discussion to assess the individual, determine practical next steps, or manage expectations on your involvement moving forward.  Because of this, you are potentially generating lots of wasted time and energy for yourself, the candidate, and other colleagues you engage in the process. 

Here is an idea to consider…

Use the discussion to understand and assess the candidate’s objectives, core strength(s) and personality/style. 

It’s best to use the conversation to generate data that helps you make decisions in the future.  Here are some high level steps to consider:

Step 1 – Pre-meeting expectations.  Rather than wait until the actual meeting, you should set the agenda during your initial email exchange with the individual.  When you are establishing the time and place of your exploratory meeting, you can outline a basic framework along the lines of:

Hi Name, I look forward to meeting you at {location} on {date/time}.  To make the best use of our 30 minutes, I’m interested to learn about your high-level career goals as well as your key strengths and differentiators.  We will obviously use a few minutes to exchange introductions but let’s focus most of our attention on your near-term objectives.

I have found this approach to work well with candidates, especially as most everyone is busy and appreciates efficiency in discussions.

Step 2 – Meeting framework.  For the actual meeting, after quick intros on both sides, I suggest that you recap an agenda for the meeting:

  1. Remind the individual that you are available for X minutes.  Having a set deadline will help you quickly focus the conversation.
  2. Explain that you are looking for high-level information on the following:
    1. Career Goals
    2. Preferences (industry, function, location, team size, etc)
    3. Defining Attributes (e.g. the 2-3 things that differentiate the person)
    4. Any other preferences (this could relate to management style, timing considerations, etc).
  3. Questions/Next steps

You can devote approximately 5 minutes to each topic area in section 2 and leave a few minutes at the end for questions.

If you keep to this agenda, you will be surprised at how much useful information you gather on the person.  You should get a clear understanding of their target environments as well as those strengths they want to flex in their next role. 

Please keep in mind that I am not suggesting any discussion about the individual’s past roles – doing so opens the door for long-winded tales that provide little help on next steps.  There is plenty of time during formal interviews to ask detailed questions about one’s experiences.

Step 3 – Meeting Follow-up.  You may want to wait until after departing to determine if/how you want to help with any next steps.  I’ve heard many examples of the host committing to forward to other colleagues only to rethink the decision at a later date.  

I would suggest either that you document the responses to A, B, C and D or ask the individual to send you a summary email which addresses those 4 points.  You then should add your feedback on the individual’s interpersonal skills.  Completing both of these steps now equips you with data to file or forward to other colleagues.

After the meeting, you may still determine that the “candidate is great” but now you will have data to support your view and have a clearer path on how you may be able to help the individual.