You think it’s a simple, innocuous question. After all, “can I pick your brain?” doesn’t seem to be harmful or annoying in any major way. But several CEOs and senior executives who we spoke to hate this question; it’s self-serving, wastes time and isn’t reciprocal, they say.
As Connie Chi, founder and CEO of The Chi Group, explains, “this question usually comes from people who are not willing to pay for your time or your company’s services — so from the start, it doesn’t sit well with me. Remember: CEOs [and senior executives and leaders] have their plate very, very full and they know exactly where to place their attention. And when you say you just want to ‘pick my brain,’ I’ve already equated that to a waste of time.”
What’s more, adds Ada Chen Rekhi, founder and COO of Notejoy, the question “can I pick your brain?” is too general. “Without an indication on the topic, I can’t make a decision on whether it’s something I can actually be helpful with,” she explains. “Alternatively, if it is something I can be helpful with, I wonder if there a faster or more efficient way I can help.”
Lastly, as Cassie Petrey, co-founder and co-owner of Crowd Surf, explains, “when I’ve taken ‘pick your brain’ meetings in the past, it’s been a situation where a person takes and never gives back — to me or to others — and they are generally unappreciative and feel entitled to the ‘brain picking’ of other people.” Petrey adds that, “I don’t mind somebody ‘picking my brain’ if they’re truly grateful [and show gratitude] — but I’ve yet to have that experience.”
Instead of asking “can I pick your brain,” the leaders we spoke to appreciate a more specific approach. “Explain why you’re reaching out,” suggests Rekhi, who adds that you could say something like, “’our mutual connection [so-and-so] said that you might be a good resource on this,’ or, ‘”I read your post about XYZ and wanted to reach out because you might know more about this.’ It’s helpful to get some context on why they’re reaching out,” Rekhi says.
Then, she says, “include what you’re hoping to get advice on. Include some high-level detail on the topic that you’re hoping to get help on, such as ‘I’m weighing a job offer at XYZ or starting a new company in XYZ space.’” And, Rekhi says, it’s helpful to “keep it focused on a topic… that you’re hoping to get advice or help on, and communicate that succinctly in your ask and follow through on keeping it focused in the conversation. It also often it helps to prepare with a set of questions you want to ask the person to keep the time focused.”
One last tip from Chi: In your ask, try to share “how you can help me or my company,” she says. “Some examples are an exchange of services, maybe introducing me to potential new clients, helping my business improve or even asking if the person offers a consulting fee.”