How to Use Coffee Breaks to Network and Caffeinate Your Career

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They say you never forget your first love. And certainly, that holds true for me. The first time we met, I remember my heart racing, my pulse pumping. I felt warm and cared for.

I was 15. Coffee was thousands of years old. But the connection was instant. Blissfully, the coffee was not.

In the intervening years since that fateful first meeting, coffee has been a faithful companion, holding my hand and carrying me through some rough patches. I credit it with helping me survive grad school, my children's infant years, and even the launch of my own business.

Let’s talk about the power of the coffee break and how you can tap into its unique potential to help you move your career forward.

Coffee—or rather, the coffee break itself—is the perfect accompaniment for human connection. We drink coffee together. And that’s where the strategery comes in. A coffee break is only a break if we use it as such. But if we use it wisely—as a means of connecting, learning, growing, asking, experimenting— it can be so much more.

So let’s talk about the power of the coffee break and how you can tap into its unique potential to help you move your career forward.

We’ll use a simple framework. I call it the who, why, what.

Begin with who

They say success is all about who you know. I find that a depressing proposition.

It’s not all about who you know, but who you know matters.

But, while it’s not wholly true in my experience, neither is it wholly untrue. In other words, it’s not all about who you know, but who you know matters.

Give some thought to your network. Who do you know? Who would you like to know? Think of people you could forge a connection with to help you reach your career goals.

Here are some guiding questions to ask yourself in order to develop a list of potential co-imbibers.

  • Who's currently doing a job you aspire to do someday?
  • Who could be a great advocate for you when you’re looking for your next role within the company?
  • Who works in a function you'd like to learn more about?
  • Who has a particular skill or capability you’d like to emulate?
  • Who has done something captivating, challenging, or surprising that you’d like to hear more about?
  • Whose point of view could really help challenge or round out your own thinking on a particular topic?

These are just a handful of thought-starters. Be thoughtful about how you invest your time, and whose you ask for in return.

Next, move on to why

Remember, just because you recognize the coffee break's strategic potential doesn't mean others will be on the same page.

This isn’t a break—it’s a value-adding, casual meeting.

When you do ask a colleague to join your coffee break, it’s critical that you position the invite as worthy of commanding time on their calendar. This isn’t a break—it’s a value-adding, casual meeting.

And that value should move in both directions.

Give some thought to things like:

  • Why them? Why are you reaching out to this person? Do you admire something they’ve accomplished? Are you curious about something they have to share? Have they impressed you? State this in your invitation.
  • Why now? Is there something timely in your ask? Is there something you’re looking to learn about in this moment? Or a promotion you’re gearing up for soon? An upcoming meeting you’ll be running that you’d like their input on?
  • Why you? What value can you offer them in return? Are you willing to share some of your own expertise or experience? Have you recently read something they might find interesting?

Position your ask so it feels meaningful and goes beyond being a simple break from the daily grind.

And finally, consider the what

What will you actually do with the time—besides, of course, drink coffee—to ensure that it’s meaningful and productive for both you and your guest?

There are many ways to put a coffee break to good use. Here are five of my personal favorites, but I encourage you to build a list of your own.

  1. Learn a new part of the business. I see this play out in client organizations time and again. The people who deeply understand other parts of the business—like marketing professionals who understand product and customer service and product developers who truly get the financial drivers and legal constraints—are the most well-rounded and ultimately successful practitioners of their craft. The more we understand about the business as a whole, the more successful we can be. So tap into the expertise of someone working on the other side of your world.
  2. Test an idea. Maybe you’ve been noodling on something—a new product? A possible improvement on an existing process? A new market to pursue? Sometimes bouncing your good idea off someone else can help turn it into a great idea. Use your coffee time to get their input and feedback before you pitch it.
  3. Run a dress rehearsal. Do you have a big meeting or interview coming up? Ask your coffee partner if they’d mind if you practiced with them. Use your time as a safe space to rehearse some of your key points. Invite them to role-play – ask you questions so you can practice responding. And you’ll show up to the actual performance way more confident.
  4. Seek advice. All organizations have rules. Some are written, but many are not. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations we’re not sure how to navigate. Maybe you’ve had some conflict with your boss, or one of your direct reports is struggling and not taking feedback well, or you’ve had a difficult customer interaction you’re looking to right. Coffee breaks provide a wonderful opportunity for you to talk things through. Ask your guest whether they’ve faced something similar and get their insight on how they handled it. Learning from someone else’s real-life experience can be one of the most rewarding and effective means of development.
  5. Show your wares. In the least icky way possible, sometimes a coffee break is just a great opportunity for you to show off a little bit. Not in a used car salesperson kind of way, but as an opportunity to connect with someone you admire, and initiate a conversation that allows you to show them the thought, curiosity, and critical thinking you’ve given a topic. Don’t force a conversation into a corner, but let your colleague know upfront that you’d like to talk through this topic with them. Ask great questions and listen, but also use the time to let them start to see you as a subject matter expert. You never know—over time, they might become a mentor, advocate, or even eventually your next boss.

Once you’ve extracted the value you sought from your coffee companion, ask what you might offer in exchange. You may have a piece of valuable feedback or an insight to share. You might offer up an idea worth exploring. Or you might just leave the invitation open such that your companion knows you’ll make yourself available when they have a need you might be able to meet.

Once you’ve extracted the value you sought from your coffee companion, ask what you might offer in exchange.

These are just five of an endless list of possible ways to use a coffee break strategically. Whether you choose to test drive one of mine, or you have a great idea of your own, make sure you don’t overlook the rule of reciprocity. Whatever the value your guest has offered you, be sure to offer the same in return.

So … coffee anyone?