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I'm an intern at a well-known technology company. It isn't ridiculously big (like Google or Facebook) where I would barely see chief level executives every once in a while. Here, I do every so often.

Being an intern, I want to grow my professional network. When I see high-level executives walking around, and I get incredibly intimated and look away. I have no idea how to approach them. I imagine a conversation along the lines of:

Me: "Hey Bill Gates, How's it going?"

Bill: "Good........... umm and you are?"

Me: "An intern here"

Bill: "Great..." [Bill's thoughts: ugh, i don't have time for this]

<awkward silence>

What is the best way to approach high-level execs as an intern [or a junior developer] (with the intention of growing your professional network)?

  • 2
    Very few CEOs would just say "great..." followed by awkward silence when an employee / intern walked up to them. Getting to the CEO level of a decent sized company generally requires a fair amount of interpersonal skills. Most likely (s)he will ask you a question or two about whether you are enjoying your work which is a decent opening for you to go further. – NotMe Aug 20 '15 at 19:20
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Note: this answer is not as applicable for cultures with higher respect for authority, but more Western cultures (where hierarchy is less important to respect).

Is it a good idea? Or crazy?

I don't think it's difficult to network with higher level folks as an intern. In fact, I think that's perhaps the best time to do so. Everyone expects you are looking for career guidance/direction and it's 100% ok to do so overtly.

When I was an intern, I actually did exactly this. I sent an email to the VP of the division I was working in - for a 50k+ company - and got together with him for some time to talk about career perspective, paths, etc. It was great, totally intimidating, but really worthwhile. Another intern went to the same school as our CEO and got together with him (all the other interns thought he was CRAZY for asking about that).

Something to think about - what percentage of interns even try to do this? 1% maybe? Most non-interns won't, either. If all interns were doing this it might be harder but most are terrified of the idea.

High level executives won't be someone to personally refer you, etc. But they can provide you great networking contacts and wisdom.

How to approach it

I imagine a conversation along the lines of:

... this isn't how most conversations like this go.

A lot of folks in higher level management positions enjoy mentoring/coaching people in career perspective. People generally like to help others, too. My experience has been that people in higher level management positions are more willing to have these types of conversations, because even though they are super busy, they get nearly no requests for this and often like doing this sort of thing (connecting people, giving career guidance, etc).

People love to give advice, especially when they think it will be useful.

So what you need to do is make it clear that:

  • You are an intern/junior employee
  • The VP has something you would benefit from (experience, wisdom, etc)
  • You would love to get their perspective and some of their time

If you do reach out, email is a good way to do it, something like:

Hey Mr. VP,

I am an intern here and would love to get perspective from you on my career. Would you be willing to get together? If so, I can setup some time on your calendar.

Thanks!

But be very sure:

  • Come with a specific list of questions to ask. You don't need to do go through them (VPs often like to talk and can be good at guiding this convo, but make sure you are prepared)
  • DO NOT WASTE THEIR TIME. This should be obvious, but if you are getting time with a VP don't waste their time.
  • Send a followup, "thanks for being willing to get together - I appreciated your guidance and it will be very helpful as I figure out my career!" type of email. If you get people to connect with, consider sending another followup email a few weeks later like, "I got together with X and it was really beneficial - thanks again for the advice!" But make sure these emails are 1) very easy to read and 2) very obviously not a "needs response" type of email.
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Here's an alternative dialog that might work at my company. It might work at yours, too:

You: "Hey Mr. CEO, How's it going?"

CEO: "Good........... umm and you are?"

You: "I'm zzz, and I'm a new intern here, in the X Department. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate the opportunity to work here at Y Corporation. I'm particularly interested in W, which I know is one of the key fields in which Y is involved. I was wondering if you have suggestions about who to talk with so that I could learn more?"

CEO: "Welcome to Y Corporation! Shoot me an email, and I'll get right back to you with a few names of folks who might help. Also, talk to Ms. HR about our Internship Mentoring Program. If you are interested, it's a great way to connect with some of our Senior Leaders."

See the difference?

You are showing your enthusiasm, an interest in the company, and are asking for something specific from Mr. CEO, rather than just generalities.

Think about it, and give it a try.

You could end up with a useful, ongoing conversation with Mr. CEO via email, and a great opening to talk about whenever you run into him again.

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Are you undertaking any work which needs the input of the CEO? If not, then don't waste their time.

The people you want in your "professional network" are those people who are going to help you get your next job - that means your peers and the lower levels of the management hierarchy. Having the CEO of a big corp in there won't do you any favours unless they know who you are and what you're good at.

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Being an intern, I want to grow my professional network.

That is good. The question you should ask yourself is, how do I improve myself so that others want to grow their professional network with you.

When I see high-level executives walking around, and I get incredibly intimated and look away.

This person is also a human being and probably started out as an intern like you.

Instead of looking away, just give a gentle smile with eye contact, and then carry about your business

I have no idea how to approach them.

Approach them for what? A smile, a nod, perhaps "Good Morning" will do.

I imagine a conversation along the lines of:

No need for conversation, let them come to you.

Some people at the top actually like to talk to young interns, perhaps give them a tip or two, to give some positive advice that will help in career. Depends on the person. No need to get intimidated, they are human beings, not God.

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