It can be intimidating to go up to an important-looking individual within your industry and start up a conversation, but I have found a question that is KEY to successfully networking with these individuals.
But, before you can ask this KEY networking question, you need to muster up the courage to go up to them. Remember that first impressions are important; eye contact and a firm handshake will contribute to a positive impression. I tend to go up to an individual, introduce myself, and shake their hand with a large smile on my face.
Once the pleasantries have passed, I tell them that I am very interested in the line of work they are engaged in and want to be able to do what they are doing in the future. Often, I find it is important that you specify you are interested in their job position. Some professionals are not as open with others who don't share an interest in what they do for a living.
Then I ask them: How did you get to your current position?
It's that simple.
I have found that going up to an important-looking individual, expressing interest in their work, and then asking this question always creates a positive interaction. Often, individuals love that people are interested in something they do for a living and would love to share some wisdom with the younger generation. The question allows them to reminisce and share their life experiences within the industry. I enjoy watching their faces light up as they begin to recall the path they took to wind up right in front of me, or they tend to sigh, chuckle, and proceed to begin their story (either is still pretty fun to watch).
At the end of their story, they tend to ask what your personal experience is within the industry. This is a perfect opportunity to share a little bit about yourself and find a way to network with them. Sometimes they will offer some advice as you begin your journey into the industry or they will share their contact information. In either case, the KEY networking question can contribute to a positive interaction with an important-individual within your industry and create a learning opportunity for you in the process.
Next time you are at a conference or career fair, don't forget to ask the KEY question!