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After a long morning of job interviews in Anderson, South Carolina, in 2007, Kevin Sherman prepared to board his airplane back to Michigan, where he was about to graduate from Michigan State with a mechanical engineering degree. He chatted with his fellow job interview candidates in the boarding area about other job opportunities.
As he got settled on the plane, his seatmate said he had overheard his conversation. “He said, ‘I’m an engineering manager,’” recalls Sherman, and the two struck up a conversation. “He interviewed me for two and a half hours,” Sherman says. Within weeks, Sherman, now 33, had accepted a formal job offer with the company, where he ended up working for four years — even meeting his wife there — before moving on for another opportunity.
As Sherman’s experience shows, the conversations you have on planes can change your life. Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, you can increase your chances of turning a casual conversation into a job interview by learning from people who have done just that. We spoke to three people who turned a plane ride into a networking session. Here are their tips.
Be on your best behavior, even when tested
When Sherman first sat down on the plane, he kept his backpack on his lap while he got settled. His seatmate — and future boss — made a comment that some might have taken to be rude: “He said, ‘I hope that’s not going to be on your lap the whole time,’” Sherman recalls.
Instead of responding snippily, Sherman calmly told him not to worry, he would soon be putting it away. A few minutes later, the conversation that turned into a job interview began. “If I would have said, ‘Don’t be a jerk,’ that wouldn’t have turned out well,” Sherman says.
Dress professionally and keep a resume handy
If you have a high chance of mingling with people who work in your industry — perhaps because the city you are visiting is hosting a conference — then dressing professionally on your plane ride can pay off. Since Sherman was coming from a job interview, he was wearing a suit, and he had extra resumes with him. That made it easy for him to make a good impression and hand his seatmate his resume, which included his contact information.
Practice your opener
For Carolyn Clancy, an executive vice president at Fidelity, the life-changing plane ride took place on her way home from a direct marketing association conference in 1999. She turned to the person next to her and asked, “Are you going home or are you on vacation?” — a line she frequently uses on airplanes as a conversation starter. “Every conversation is an opportunity to network,” she notes.
Clancy quickly discovered that her seatmate had been at a Fidelity sales conference, and they started talking about the future of marketing and the Internet, which was just starting to take off. After two hours of chatting, they exchanged business cards. The next morning, Clancy received a phone call from a Fidelity recruiter. Within two weeks, she had a new job at Fidelity, where she has been ever since.
Even if you’re not job-hunting at the moment, Clancy says, plane conversations can be a chance to learn more about a new industry or company.
“Have a genuine curiosity and ask questions,” she says. “You could learn about where to take your next vacation, a great hotel, or how to do your job better.”
Resist the pull of your phone
If you’re staring at your phone or wearing headphones, it’s harder to start conversations that can lead to professional networking, Sherman says. After his morning of job interviews, he was ready to zone out to music, but he resisted the urge.
“Once he started talking and I realized the potential, I was excited, even though initially I didn’t want to have a conversation,” he says.
Try to book a seat near the front of the plane
Ryan Bonnici — chief marketing officer at the user review company G2 Crowd and a former flight attendant — says sitting near the front of the plane, even within coach, increases the chances that you will be seated next to frequent flyers, who tend to be business travelers. “They typically fly closer to the front of the plane,” he says.
Booking your flight early will help you nab one of these front seats. And if you can spring for a business- or first-class seat, then you have an even bigger chance of rubbing elbows with a business executive who might be able to boost your career, Bonnici says. You can also look for conversation opportunities while you’re in the waiting area or in airport lounges.
Don’t limit interactions to your seatmate
While you’re waiting for the lavatory, Bonnici says, you can introduce yourself to the person standing near you. As at your seat, though, steer clear of people sending signals that they don’t feel like chatting. He says lack of eye contact or super-short responses to your questions are all signs that you should turn your conversation elsewhere.
Bonnici made a connection on a plane almost 10 years ago that changed his career while he was welcoming passengers as a flight attendant aboard a flight from Australia to the United States. He started talking with someone who worked in marketing at Microsoft, and that connection led Bonnici to shift careers and pursue marketing, a field in which he still works today.
Don’t say goodbye without trading information
Whether it’s by sharing email addresses or business cards, be sure you have a way to follow up with the person before leaving the plane. Then, send a short thank-you note within a day of your chat, and take any necessary next steps such as submitting your resume for an official job opening. Otherwise, that conversation at 30,000 feet could soon be forgotten.