Don’t Ask Me Where I Work

When you go to a conference or networking event, what is the first thing you get asked or ask? “Where do you work” leads to small talk, not real connections. Explore the better way of making stronger relationships.
Event with people networking

“So, where do you work?”

Go to any conference or networking event, and that’s the first question asked after you say your name. Sometimes it leads to a robust conversation, but, more often than not, it leads to awkward small talk that doesn’t even result in a LinkedIn connection, must less a friendship in the industry.

There’s a better way.

The Experiment

I was recently at the superb Women in Compliance conference put on by Compliance Week in Atlanta. In a session on building relationships, the moderator challenged us to find someone we didn’t know at our table. Instead of asking them where they work, we were to ask them what type of networker they are. The choices were not a networker, reluctant, giver, taker, or Zen (both a giver and a taker).

I turned to the woman next to me. She professed to be a reluctant networker. She seemed shy and a bit uncomfortable with the exercise. I described my own style, and we commiserated that networking can be hard, especially at the beginning of a conference. We quickly moved on to a more in-depth discussion. Turns out she is on a public board, which is something I’m interested in knowing more about, and she wanted to deepen her knowledge of the compliance world. We’ve connected. It worked.

What to Avoid

To make the “don’t ask me where I work” strategy, avoid asking questions with simple answers. These include:

  • Where do you work?
  • What do you do?
  • How long have you been in the industry?

What to Ask Instead

The presenters, which included the fabulous Mary Shirley, Lisa Fine, Colleen Dorsey and Ingrid Fredeen, recommended using more intentional questions likely to elicit more enthusiastic answers with more depth. Try out:

  • What are your big priorities for this year?
  • What are you feeling most enthusiastic about right now?
  • What project are you most enjoying?
  • What’s the most fun thing in your life right now?
  • What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Failsafe Question

If all else fails, I find “where did you come in from?” to be a great question. Since no one lives in a conference venue, everyone drove or flew in from somewhere.

When I ask this question, chances are I’ve probably either been to their state or country, or I will have heard of it and be able to talk about it. If I haven’t – even better! I can ask:

  • What’s the best thing about living there?
  • Was it a long trip?
  • How are the (insert sports team) doing this year? (Helpful whether you follow sports or not. If they don’t know, bond over that!)
  • What do enjoy doing outdoors where you live?

People enjoy talking about their towns. It’s a good way to get into deeper conversations.

Building Deeper Connections

Once you’ve started the new relationship, connect on LinkedIn immediately. It’s easier to find someone’s profile when they’re in front of you. Send a message saying it was nice to meet them and you hope to connect again soon.

By the time you arrive at the conference next year, you’ll have people to look forward to seeing. You will also build new connections by using better questions and avoiding the dead-end “where do you work” doldrums.

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Kristy Grant-Hart

Kristy Grant-Hart is the founder and CEO of Spark Compliance.
She's a renowned expert at transforming compliance departments into in-demand business assets.

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