How I build bridges


A little while ago, I spent a morning writing introductory letters to people. They came about for a range of reasons:

  • A friend had asked me if I knew someone who could help with qualitative methodology and analysis. I knew a consultant who could help.
  • A colleague was looking for work, and I offered to introduce her to some senior researchers who might know of some opportunities for her.
  • A friend had said that her daughter wanted to be an astronaut. Turned out that I knew two women who were associated with space programs.

One of those people suggested that I write a post on how I go about making introductions between strangers. This is that post.

One of the things that I love about my job is that I get to talk to academics about their research. Because I sit in a Faculty (or College) research office, I talk to people from a range of different Departments and Schools. I end up knowing a little bit about the work of a lot of people.

Occasionally, I talk to researchers who are looking at different aspects of the same problem. When I do that, I like to introduce them to each other. A lot of the time, I suspect that not much comes of it – maybe they have a coffee. Maybe they are too busy. However, when it does work, it seems to work quite well. People meet for a coffee, talk about their respective interests. Sometimes, there is enough there for something more to happen. Most of the time, it is just a pleasant interlude amongst the hurry-scurry of modern academia. But it is enough, I think, to have introduced people who respect one another’s work, given them a different view on their research and created a weak tie between the academic silos.

Everyone will have different approaches to making introductions. I don’t really think that it matters how you do it, as long as you aren’t afraid to do it. It may feel presumptuous, particularly when there are different power relationships involved. However, I’ve never received poor feedback on the introductions I’ve made. Occasionally, someone replies that they already know the other person. That’s OK. Recently someone wrote that they already knew the other person and their work, but they didn’t realise that their current work had converged. That was nice.

In general, I only introduce people that I respect. That is, I only introduce people that I would be willing to have a coffee with myself. There are some poisonous people in academia, and I’m a firm believer in the no assholes rule.

I make it clear from the outset that this is an introduction. That way, if people aren’t interested, they can delete the email and move on.

Subject: Introduction – Prof Needs-Grant and Dr Wants-Funding

The tone is informal to indicate that this is a social interaction, rather than a professional one.

Hello Chris and Ash

Talking to you recently, I realised that you both work on similar topics. This email is to introduce you to each other, just in case you aren’t aware of one another’s work.

Then I provide a short description of their work, and a link to their profile.

Chris, Ash Wants-Funding looks at ….
I thought that was similar to how you were talking about …

Ash, Chris Needs-Grant does fantastic work on …
When we spoke the other day, I was reminded of…

I think that it is important to clearly state the link that I see between their work. That is the basis for the introduction, after all, and it provides them with a seed for discussion. It may be that I’m wrong and there is no link. I think that’s OK – I’m not an expert in either of their domains. I’m just trying to help.

For these sort of introductions, I waver about including an explicit call to action. If I do include something, it is gentle: “you might like to meet for a coffee”. I’d never use these sorts of introductions to encourage people to submit a grant together, as I believe that the best connections emerge organically, rather than being engineered (yes, I understand the implicit contradiction in what I am saying).

When I was introducing my friend who was looking for a job, I needed to include a specific call to action. Also, the introduction was slightly different. I needed to talk about the skills that my friend had, and why I thought that the person I was recommending them to would be good to work for. That meant that it was slightly more structured:

Chris, Ash Wants-Job has just finished [what they were doing] and is now looking for work.
I know them through their work on [how I know them, and why I admire them]. One of her key skills is [the reason that I think they are great]. Family commitments mean that she can really only [any limits on their employment]. I think that they are looking for [the sort of position they are looking for].

If you can take a moment to think about something that might suit them, or to introduce them to a couple of other people who might help, I would appreciate it.

Ash,  Chris Great-Manager is the [whatever their position is].
More than that, they are [personal characteristics that indicates why they would be a great manager]. When the university wanted to [something extraordinary that they have done]. I knew them when they were [how I know them and why I like them].

I feel like it is important to come at this from both sides. I would never recommend someone if I thought that the would be a dud employee, and I would never recommend someone if I thought that they would be a dud manager.

Also, I can’t lie. I stand behind every statement I make, so I have to believe in them wholeheartedly. These are not evidence-backed claims, such as you would include in a grant application. They are backed by my understanding of the people involved, and my belief that they would benefit from talking to one another.

By having a standard structure, I reduce the amount of time that I need to spend thinking about this. It doesn’t happen often, so it generally doesn’t take a lot of time to do. A friend is spending her sabbatical in Melbourne, and has asked me to introduce her to people who might be interested in her work. I only know three or four people who might be interested, so that will probably take me about an hour.

This is my approach. It works for me, but ymmv, so let me know if it works for you.