In a crowded Caffè Nero, I sit across from my career crush, ferociously worrying if I’ve picked a table worthy of her time and presence. (I’m pretty sure she hasn't noticed but, for the record, no, I haven't.) In the course of her outrageously busy day, she’s managed to carve out an hour to talk to me about what she does and how she does it. Why? Well, because I’d asked her for coffee. We had worked together briefly on a project and then, as instructed by my assertive American mentor, I’d “followed up”. And, much like asking someone out on a date, I was nervous. I’d apprehensively messaged her: “Can I buy you coffee sometime?” “Sure,” she’d replied.
Offering to buy someone coffee is the most socially acceptable way of networking. Grabbing coffee is another way of saying “Let’s do business”, but without a briefcase or a business card. There may not be a specific motivation or outcome for either party, but something inside of you suggests that having that coffee is a good idea. In fact, I’d go as far to say it’s never a bad idea to have a coffee. If you’re doing the asking, like me, “grabbing coffee” makes up 100 per cent of your marketing and strategy budget and is worth every penny (it also helpfully forces you to brush your hair and wear something other than joggers once in a while).
Coffees are like little markers in your path – they’ll shift and shape the direction you take in all sorts of surprising ways
If you’re being asked, then there’s no excuse to say no. You never know where it will lead and, from personal experience, I’ve always taken something valuable away, more often than not when I wasn’t expecting to. Coffees are like little markers in your path – they’ll shift and shape the direction you take in all sorts of surprising ways.
Over the decade I’ve been working, I’ve nurtured some of my best working relationships over coffee. Starting out years ago, I took a writer for coffee. Almost 10 years later, she gave me one of my most memorable commissions. I met my mentor, who’s had a huge impact on my career, when the person I originally was meant to be meeting for coffee was sick and sent my mentor-to-be instead. I was so close to cancelling, but thank God I didn’t. My mentor is now a friend and a rock. All thanks to a couple of cups of coffee.
And, for me, “grabbing coffee” is a far more humane way to network. There are no misspelt name badges; there’s no looking at your phone, pretending you are sending an email, wishing you’d just gone home to watch The Good Fight instead. You have only one awkward introduction to make, but at least you’re not lingering by the wine table, hoping to see someone you recognise. You have purpose and focus. Most importantly, you don’t have small talk – you have conversation.
If, like me, you don’t like telling people how great you are, especially if you’ve never met them before, then conversation is a far better and more palatable way to sell yourself. I cannot look someone in the eye and tell them a litany of my achievements, because it makes me squirm (and, while I wish women would own their achievements more, I’m also desperate not to conflate empowerment with shameless self-promotion). Yet the one thing I do have faith in is my ability to hold down a conversation. I can display knowledge and understanding and opinion through the vehicle of dialogue and, specifically, dialogue that actually doesn’t involve me. I can ask questions that show intrigue; I can refer to things that demonstrate an interest in the wider world. I don’t have to verbalise my LinkedIn page (could you imagine?) over warm white wine in a conference room. Instead, I can use the hour to interact, exchange thoughts and ideas, and hopefully prove to someone that I might be someone they want to work with or, at the very least, know exists.
And, while men often feel more confident in their self-worth and self-value, I don’t believe in imitating them. I’ve been on enough bad dates with blokes who list their achievements with the same sense of importance and straight face as Huw Edwards reading the News at Ten to know there’s nothing in the slightest bit attractive about that habit. The art of conversation, however, is a masterful skill I plan to spend my life practising. And there’s not much better practice than with a stranger over coffee. And it’s not just about impressing someone, either. Just like a really great conversation, a successful coffee is not about you saying your bit – it’s about the rapport built, the alchemy, the potential for something else.
I have memories of coffee shops in Notting Hill and my father sipping on big black bowls, in between chain-smoking and stories of his far-flung travels, from when I was little. Then, the smell of coffee was a life I didn’t know – the unfamiliar, the unobtainable. Now, coffee is the strategy to my career, always in my life: working in coffee shops, meeting people in coffee shops, reading the brilliant words of other writers that send me into a tornado of self-doubt in coffee shops. And now the smell of coffee sticks to my clothes because of me, not the drifting scent of a life I was never allowed into, but the fabric of my ambition, with me every day.
My career crush has to leave. She’s on her way somewhere important and we finish our coffee, finally escaping that ill-chosen table. Our conversation made no promises, but I walk down the street with a rush of air underneath my feet and it feels like the beginning of something.