Exceeding the Limit on the Freeway

By: Edna Landau

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Dear Edna:

I have been working for the past five years as an assistant in the admissions office of an American conservatory. I would like to embark on a new direction – perhaps artist management or artistic administration at an orchestra. I know some people to whom I feel I can turn for advice but I’m not sure whether I should be offering to pay them or whether this is the sort of thing that people do for free. Can you please let me know how I should approach this and what one can expect from them? —R.S.

Dear R.S.:

Thank you for writing in with this excellent question. Happily, the world of the performing arts is a very nurturing one. Individuals who are in established positions are happy to share their expertise and insight with young people who are still building their careers. They probably benefited themselves from such input when they started out and this is one way for them to give back. They do not expect to be paid for their time, which typically will not exceed an hour. Nevertheless, one should not take this largesse for granted and there are certain guidelines that you might want to keep in mind:

1)    When you approach someone for this purpose, it is advisable to indicate as concisely as possible why you have approached them and to express your gratitude in advance for their consideration of your request, in light of their very busy schedule.

2)    It is best to avoid making an open-ended request. Be specific about the information you are seeking. For example, it is ok to ask someone if they think you are suited for a particular position but it may not be ok if you ask them to review your resume and tell you the kinds of jobs for which they think you might be qualified. It might be more suitable to address that to a paid consultant.

3)    Avoid putting time pressure on the person you are approaching. Try to make your request sufficiently in advance of the date by which you need the information. This is even more critical if you are asking for a letter of recommendation. If your need is sudden and unexpected, express your understanding that it may not be possible for them to respond in such short order.

4)    In general, if you are asking someone to share their expertise and they are not a family friend, colleague, former teacher, director of the alumni office of a school you attended, or someone with whom you have regular give and take with regard to sharing information, it is advisable to offer to pay that person for their time. Let them decide whether to offer their counsel for free.

5)    If someone has given you free advice in the past, perhaps as part of a mentoring program at a trade conference, do not assume that they will continue to advise you going forward. If they promised to follow up on some things, they will undoubtedly be true to their word, but do not expect or request any further action on their part without offering to pay them. For example, if they have agreed to let you use their name in expressing support for a project you are undertaking, that should not send a signal to you that they are happy to assist with your pitch letter or marketing materials unless they specifically indicated that in advance. Here, too, there are consultants who can provide such services.

6)    If someone agrees to give you free advice over a cup of coffee, try to grab the bill before they do. If they insist on paying, it’s OK to let them pay. A handwritten thank you note following the meeting is always welcome. If they happen to mention something that is important to them during the course of the meeting, with which you are in a position to assist, surprise them by following up on it. They may not have time to look for the perfect yoga teacher but if you know someone really good who is located near their home or office, send them the contact information. They will surely be impressed with your thoughtfulness.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2012

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