February 2, 2021

What’s The Deal With ‘Pick Your Brain’ Meetings?

It’s a phrase uttered one billion times a month. I may be rounding up, and it may not be scientific, but that’s at least my hypothesis. The phrase is as follows:

“Have you got 30 minutes; I’d like to pick your brain?”

As much as I strongly advocate being a coach, mentor and giver of knowledge to others, I have difficulty accepting requests to “pick my brain” just because someone needs my input.

While that may sound ironic and even harsh, given I have written four books about being a good person and leader, let’s break down the problem with the issue and outline what could be done differently. There are certainly ways in which both parties may benefit.

person in black pants and black shoes sitting on brown wooden chair
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

First, the “pick my brain” request tends to come from people on the outer fringe of my network. While I may know them, I often do not know them very well. The request to meet—while humbling—is simply one more request on my time despite there not being a strong relationship in play. That is as one-sided as a Roadrunner versus Wile E. Coyote episode.

Without a foundational relationship to work from, the request on a person’s time is somewhat self-serving. It’s a one-way exchange. It’s a dead-end demand. The inquiry is usually laden with niceties, respect, and positive accolades, but that misses the point. It’s one party seeking knowledge often without anything being offered in return to the other. (At least that’s my experience with such requests.)

Second, the “pick my brain” question forgets two key points. Many people are already overburdened with meetings that the thought of one more sends them to the pharmacy for an herbal supplement like Ashwagandha or Valerian. It stresses them out. Research firms have discovered that senior leaders spend more than 50 percent of their time in meetings, while more than 70 percent of them are ineffective. Imagine the thought of taking on one more meeting that is also ineffective.

Then, there is the guilt factor. Because someone has reached out to the expert, far too often, they feel compelled to take the meeting because of those niceties mentioned above and positive comments in the requesting email or DM. It’s added to the calendar mix. A prayer of “don’t make this horrible” is said as the meeting date approaches.

While all of this sounds potentially dreadful, there is a strategy I’d like to suggest for both the requesting and receiving parties.

If you are someone seeking a “pick your brain” meeting, consider the following three tactics:

  • Ask yourself how well you know this person. If it’s not at all or just a little, consider ways to build up the relationship before making such a request. In this age of the pandemic, it could come by virtue of commenting on social media posts or even tagging that person as you acknowledge their body of work or experience in your own writing. Get creative before requesting. Also, make connections to similar connections. It’s always nice to know how well you may be connected to me through others in my direct orbit.
  • Do your homework. No “pick your brain” meeting should be a waste of time for the giver. If you are not entirely and utterly overprepared to know everything there is about the giving person, you will be viewed somewhat negatively. So, brush up on whatever you can. Jobs, papers, books, talks, videos, get your hands on whatever you can to ensure you’re going in extremely well-versed in that person’s background. It borders on prepping for a final university examination.  
  • Be reciprocal and giving. This may be the most important recommendation. It’s also the point at which I know the requesting person is a good person or not. In the request to meet, I would outline not only how the time will be of benefit but you will highlight what you’re going to do to reciprocate or give back. That may be a ‘pay it forward’ strategy to others. Perhaps you will donate two hours in the community as a thank-you for that person’s brain giving. The point? Demonstrate that you not only appreciate the “pick your brain” time but that you will go above and beyond the request to do something for others. That shows me it’s not a one-sided request and that you’re a decent human being.

In summary, I’ve stopped taking “pick your brain” meetings if those who are requesting don’t make at least two of the three suggestions from above. And more often than not, the third suggestion—be reciprocal and giving—is the item I am looking for most.

I’m not against giving; I’m simply against those that do not respect the other person’s time, are ill-prepared, and treat it like a one-sided chance to suck out knowledge.

There is a better, more empathetic and considerate way in which to achieve the same result.


My 4th book, “Lead. Care. Win. How to Become a Leader Who Matters” recently published. Amy. C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School calls it “an invaluable roadmap.” A 16+ hour, self-paced online leadership development program is also available with nearly 100 videos.

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