- Build It Before You Need It
I can’t tell you how many times a friend has called me and said, “Keith, I just became unemployed. I need to start networking, will you teach me how?” My answer: “No. No. No. You need to start job-hunting! You should have been building relationships for the past five or ten years, so now that you need a job, you could make 20 twenty calls and have five job offers waiting for you in a week.”
Believe it or not, these calls don’t just come from people in their early 20s. People even near or at executive levels make the same mistakes of not proactively making the connections today that they’ll need tomorrow. Don’t let that be you. Begin today by identifying the people you need to get to know and develop a plan to consistently start and strengthen those relationships for your success.
- Do Your Homework
Before I meet one of my target contacts for my business and my career, I like to have a one-page synopsis about the person — not just the professional. Homework includes the story of his career, of course, but also his hobbies, his favorite charity, and the stuff that matters most to him like what his children are up to, if he’s dealing with any health issues, or if something in his organization is wreaking havoc on his everyday job.
The point is to find some common ground that is deeper and richer than what usually arises during a serendipitous encounter. Also, you want to find a way to make them more successful, as individuals, inside or outside their companies.
Before one executive conference, I was doing my homework on one CEO I admired and wanted to meet; and just a quick Google search revealed that she had run the New York City Marathon the previous year. When I ran into her at the conference, I said, “You know, I don’t know how you do it. I like to think I’m in great shape, but the training for a marathon killed me. I had to stop.”
Of course, she was surprised. “How the heck did you know I ran a marathon?” she happily quipped. She was flattered that I had made a special effort to learn about her, and the marathon training conversation led to us arranging to workout together whenever she’s in Los Angeles, quality time to further build a relationship.
- Put Yourself in the Right Place at the Right Time
I knew I’d be able to run into that CEO during a standard conference break, but to meet others on your “aspirational” contact list, you may have to get a bit more creative.
In the “Conference Commando” chapter of Never Eat Alone, I mentioned how my first meeting with visionary media executive Barry Diller happened when I learned he was speaking at a conference I was attending. Even though my boss at the time was a friend of his, getting access to someone at Diller’s level was still a tough nut to crack. To create our initial, brief conversation, I positioned myself where he would be leaving the stage after his talk, and it led to a more formal meeting.
Another example: this spring at the Microsoft Small Business Conference, I hoped to get some time with Kevin Turner, Microsoft’s COO, who I had first met a few years ago. But when I looked at the schedule, I realized the only time I might be able to catch him was in makeup, backstage. So I camped out beside the makeup artist, and sure enough, I got three minutes of his attention without the usual circus that surrounds a Fortune 500 executive.
Putting yourself in the right place at the right time can be very helpful, but remember that it does not supersede doing your homework. To have a productive meeting, always be prepared.
- Befriend the Gatekeepers
So I got three minutes with Kevin Turner and of course I’ll follow up with him, but it’s more likely I could maintain a relationship with someone close to him: a gatekeeper. When Kevin went on stage, I spotted a few people from his team. I introduced myself and had a great conversation with Kevin’s right hand. Turns out he’s from Pittsburgh like me, and now he’s a Seattle transplant, so we had fun with the Steelers/Seahawks Super Bowl banter. I learned a lot about his career and his family, especially the difficulty the frequent travel limits the time he can spend with his six-year-old daughter. Interesting person. Exactly why you should always treat gatekeepers as well as you’d treat their bosses.
Many times, if you respect their intelligence, you can turn gatekeepers into your sales reps, too. If you take the time to get to know them and you genuinely have something of value for their bosses, they’ll be excited to take it to them. They can spot good ideas when they see them.
- Know your Competitors
Especially at the executive levels, it’s important for your business and your personal career that you get to know your competition. In the past, I always got to know my competition when I was in key posts, such as Deloitte CMO, Starwood CMO, and there were multiple reasons for doing so. One, it’s more important to focus on getting your own stuff right than is needed on beating the other guy in order to succeed. Two, you never know where you or they will end up over the long term and one of you might hire the other. Sure I appreciate a healthy rivalry, but again, that does not mean you cannot be friends around such a rivalry. And three, of course, you can actually learn a lot from each other as well.
- Find MentorS
Note the capital S. MentorS. Too often rising stars try to pattern themselves after one individual they resonate with early in their careers. That’s a recipe for disaster when you reach the executive band. Your one hero may have been great in her particular situation, but maybe she wouldn’t have all the answers in your position. So turn more than just one of your contacts into great mentors and learn from all of them. Ultimately, it’s YOU the organization wants to make something happen, not you molded in the image of another.
- Share Your Passions
Remember that no matter the titles or the résumés of the contacts you’re making, they’re not just professionals. They’re people. They’re human. Your business relationships are personal relationships. Treat them as such. Build trust through intimacy by skipping the small talk and going deep into what really matters — your dreams or fears, your children or the business issues that keep you up at night.
And don’t think for a moment that they’ll think less of you. In fact, usually the opposite happens. When I tell people about my humble beginnings — I grew up a country boy in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, the son of an oft-unemployed steelworker and a cleaning lady — and how it took me so long to overcome my insecurities of being poor and being picked on by kids from more wellto- do families, people don’t think less of me. They immediately empathize and feel more endeared to me than ever before. All you have to do is let your guard down and show enough vulnerability to make others comfortable with opening up to you. Share your passions, in words and in actions. Invite your business-contacts-turning- personal-friends along to your favorite activities.
For me, those are workouts, dinner parties, even going to church. Workouts are great replacements for meetings in the office, because you get to work on your health at the same time as strengthening relationships for your career. And at dinner parties the atmosphere allows for mixing your business associates with your personal friends and family, enabling your clients or future employers to get to know you in a more natural setting and allowing you to spend time with all the important people in your professional and personal life. That’s as good as it gets for an executive who is building relationships for total life success.