The Five Worst Words in Business

“Hey, let me pick your brain.”  It’s a phrase often heard by  CEO’s, thought leaders and consultants. The requestor is often an acquaintance, colleague, employee or jobseeker. Sometimes the question is a networking tactic used by potential colleagues or peers.  Other times it’s a seemingly innocent query for some much-needed advice.

Whomever the source, and whatever the reason, “let me pick your brain” is a downright dangerous phrase for several reasons.

First, “let me pick your brain” is in essence a phrase used by those in search of free advice. Most consultants are paid to provide their expertise, which often includes advice.  For some reason, many people don’t consider that when asking for this, they’re really asking the consultant to provide what might be part of their professional portfolio of services at no charge. We’d never ask a plumber to show us how to replace our own garbage disposal.  The point is, by asking you could be devaluing the time of that particular consultant. Outside of very specific settings, few people like to give professional advice for free, especially if they're normally paid to give it.

Another reason to avoid using the phrase is that it may make you sound as though you don’t possess the necessary skills or knowledge to do your job. Especially if you’re reaching out to someone that you may not know very well. In industries and professions where knowledge transition is occurring at a rapid pace, this might not be as big of a deal. Take for example social media. It’s generally accepted that we can’t all be up to speed on the latest apps or content marketing platforms; they’re being produced too rapidly. But if you’re a marketing person asking about how to implement a strong social media program, you might have a credibility problem.

And yet sharing knowledge can be one of the best ways to begin and build relationships. There are great ways to handle this situation both as a requestor and as the person with the know-how. Here are a few points to help you navigate this scenario and turn it into a productive and mutually beneficial encounter:

  • Promise me you’ll never use the phrase “let me pick your brain” again.  Your reputation is based on your capability. If you’d like to sound out a colleague on an issue, try using something like,  “I know you're busy, but I have an interesting puzzle to solve with XYZ, and I'd really value your input.” Your query now sounds both respectful of your acquaintance’s time AND their opinion.
  • Remember it’s important to try to build a relationship BEFORE you ask. Some of the most beneficial relationships I have are with my “informal” board of directors . These are people with whom I have cultivated relationships over the years. They know me well and know what I do.  I value their opinion and am always generous with providing my own advicor their endeavors. However, I had to earn that right by developing a strong relationship first.
  • You can try to make the information share a more collaborative encounter. Everyone at one time or another can benefit from fresh ideas from co-workers, employees and networking contacts. Before making your respectful request, have in hand something that you can provide to that person so it doesn’t look like you’re just in it for a free handout. But never imply that you may hire someone eventually if you really don’t plan to. That kind of manipulation can be very transparent. You CAN, however, offer to refer them to other colleagues who may have an opportunity.
  • If someone is gracious enough to provide advice, remember that gratitude goes a long way to help build that longterm relationship. A handwritten thank you note,  or even just an email can really help ensure that you realized your colleague’s time is important and you appreciate it.
  • Finally, if you’re on the receiving end of this phrase, be savvy about how you dole out wisdom. You might say, “Here's one way I'd handle it,” and then offer up a solution. Follow it up with, “But that's just one angle, and I'd probably explore several.” Throw in something to back it up – a statistic or fact that shows you really know what you're talking about – and you've dangled some pretty solid bait. If the reaction is positive, don't be afraid to pursue the chance to convert. Invite a meeting or follow-up by phone or e-mail later in the week, and make it clear you have concrete, actionable ideas up your sleeve.

The important thing to remember is that knowledge and experience are valuable assets. If you’re in need of consultation be respectful with  your ask. If you’re the one being asked, be conservative about how much to provide at the onset. If handled well, this exchange can  turn into a powerful interaction, if not a lifelong relationship.

Communication consultant Roshini Rajkumar's clients include the Medtronic, Allianz, Ryan Companies, the Minnesota Wild, Fortune 500 business executives, including the CEO of Bridgestone Americas and senior leadership teams across a variety of industries. She's the author of Communicate THAT!: Your Toolbox for Powerful Presencehosts the popular radio program News & Views with Roshini Rajkumar on WCCO (CBS Minnesota) Radio and writes a monthly personal brand column for Twin Cities Business magazine.

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