Your boss asks if you can “circle up” before a big meeting. The VP won’t stop talking about “team synergy.” A department head keeps talking about their team’s “limited bandwidth.” The business world comes with its own set of jargon, and while much of it is pointless (we’re looking at you, operationalize), it’s not going anywhere soon.
Like, for example, picking someone’s brain. Asking to pick someone’s brain is essentially asking if you can ask them a bunch of questions. Maybe they’ve achieved the career you want or are particularly skilled at something you want to be good at. Maybe you’d just like to know what they do in their day-to-day job. Asking to pick someone’s brain is shorthand, sure, but it’s also vague.
Here’s how to effectively pick someone’s brain and get the information you’re looking for without wasting their time or yours in the process.
Asking to pick someone’s brain
Watch your language
Dorie Clark, adjunct professor at Duke University, advises against using the exact words “pick your brain,” which can make the meeting sound more one-sided. Instead, you want to build a relationship with the person you’re asking, so use language that conveys that.
This suggestion is backed up by Harvard Business School professors Joshua D. Margolis and David A. Garvin, who wrote in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review that asking for advice is a “subtle and intricate art,” requiring “emotional intelligence, self-awareness, restraint, diplomacy, and patience.” In other words, it requires tact.
If the person you’re looking to speak with doesn’t know you, it’s not always the best idea to appear out of nowhere and ask to pick their brain. Treat it like other networking connections and have a mutual friend or coworker introduce you first, if possible.
Additionally, the request is vague. Get clear with yourself about exactly what you hope to accomplish before you ask to avoid wasting your time and theirs. For example, is what you want really an informational interview? If so, tell them. Do you want to know how they decided whether they should go to law school? If so, tell them. Do you want to know how they changed careers? Climbed the ladder? Managed a team through a reorganization? Negotiated their salary? Let someone go? Tell them.
In other words, if you’re going to ask to pick someone’s brain, ask to pick their brain about X.
How to ask
As far as the medium for the request, email is the best way to go. That way, there isn’t immediate pressure to respond, you can over-and-out if in case they aren’t willing or able, and it’s easier to coordinate schedules and set a date and time.
In your request, give them a specific reason for the conversation mentioning and be upfront about how much time you’ll need, i.e., 30 minutes or lunch.
I know you were recently promoted to head of sales, and seeing you rise through the company has been a major motivation for me.
I admire your career and would love any advice you could offer on making the journey from a sales associate to a leadership position like you have. I’d be more than willing to take you out for lunch or coffee wherever you’d like, if you have the time!
Either way, I appreciate your consideration. If there’s anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to let me know.
How to conduct a successful “brain-picking” session
Once the email has been sent and a date has been scheduled, here’s how to make sure the brain-picking session is productive for both parties.
1. Bring your wallet
Just a reminder that if you’re going out for a drink or a meal, you should pay for their order. Since you’re the one asking this favor, it’s only polite to do so—and it’ll make a good first impression.
2. Do your homework beforehand
Research your coffee/lunch/etc. partner in ways relevant to your conversation. Check their LinkedIn profile to find their previous positions, any boards they’re a member of, what their education background is. Research also the subject you’re discussing so you can come to the conversation as informed as possible. This will help inform what questions you should ask.
3. Come prepared
Come with a list of questions that cater to your interviewee—and not ones that can be answered through a Google search. This conversation doesn’t have to feel like a formal interview, but in many ways, it is.
Memorize your questions so the conversation flows organically to make sure you’re getting the information you need in a time frame that respects your companion’s schedule.
4. Keep track of time
If you haven’t agreed on a specific amount of time for your conversation—if you simply said “let’s get coffee,” for example—ask your companion at the beginning of the conversation how much time they have: I want to be respectful of your time. It’s 3:05 now. By when do you need to be back to the office?
It may be easy to get lost in conversation, but you need to be respectful of their time, so keep an eye on the time and begin to wrap up five minutes before your session is over.
5. Don’t forget to follow up after your conversation
A quick email saying thank you and letting them know how grateful you are will do the trick. Plus, they could become an important part of your professional network —better to make a positive lasting impression!