Networking with Top Management and Other Intimidating Species

Thanks for all of you who participated in my poll. This topic was overwhelming the favorite. I will continue to use this poll to guide my blogging. After all I am here to serve. 🙂 So as that great American Al Capone said, "Vote early, vote often!" 

Before I dive into this topic, the current environment is waking up a lot of people. As Samuel Johnson stated, "…when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." There are a lot more people with wonderful concentration right now! The good news is it is never too late to discover what you want and who you are. Once you wake up, you got to get up and follow your calling. Check out this WSJ article, but pay special attention to the amazing trail of comments it generated. Laid off and looking Unfortunately, this is a common and widespread experience. Can we get out our comfort zone and see new and different possibilities? Great Portuguese proverb, "When the wind fails, row!"

The Obsession with Networking Up
Of the thousands of people I have met and who have attended my workshops, the most requested topic is this one. There seems to be universal discomfort with conversing with senior management. Some of the reasons are obvious and some of them are silly. I will briefly discuss these issues and how to overcome them. But first, let me address this widely shared and I think misplaced focus on the people above us. 

Adopting the Mentoring and Networking Lifestyle (AMNL) is a 360 degree experience. It is founded on the principle that everyone has power and influence, that every person regardless of their title, classification, band, status, position, or demographic profile, must be engaged and respected. My point here is, we have no idea who people are beside and "below" us. –The people we work with and who work for us. I can tell you a thousand stories about assistants, clerks, interns and subordinates who were mistakenly overlooked by the blindly ambitious as irrelevant. "Lower level" colleagues by virtue of their family lineage, their background, and/or their sheer genius were powerful and influential people. A nephew of the chairman of the Board who was the receptionist, the girlfriend of the CEO who was an intern, cubical neighbors who hold the key to your dreams etc etc. I conduct many sessions for top execs, and one time a SrVP of a Fortune 100 company stood up and said, "Are you suggesting I network with secretaries?" With such a stupid question, I thought he was jesting. I went on to say that only an idiot would not network with assistants. Because assistants run the world! They tell their bosses what is going on, who is doing their job, who is good and who is not. They influence appointments and how your brand is viewed.

For the last 20 years, I have given the receptionist and my assistant veto power over any candidate appying for a job with my organizations. With a simple thumbs up or a thumbs down they could determine the fate of that candidate. Why? Anyone who decides to treat these team members differently than they treat me can not be part of my world. Every position is vital to creating a culture of trust, equity and collaboration. So networking up is only one facet of the omni-directional perspective of AMNL. 

Networking up usually implies meeting top execs to whom you do not report. Execs that you think are important to know. The most uncomfortable setting for this issue is the dreaded reception where the sycophants surround the C level leader. How do I break into this conversation? What do I say? A similar situation is meeting the high level exec one-on-one or in an impromptu setting. Planned or unplanned encounters. Here's what I have learned from my experiences and observing networking mavens:

  1. Do your homework–You may be glib and have the gift of ad lib, but you have to prepare. Google the exec you want to meet. Where did they go to school? What charities do they support? Do they have kids? What teams do they root for? 
  2. Execs are just people–Don't try and quote from the last article in Forbes you skimmed or recite some clever lines you think reflect the Exec's view. Ask questions about things they care about– Their teams, their kids, their charities. And then, listen and let them lead the conversation. 
  3. Get introduced–Network and find someone that knows the exec and get introduced. Not a referral, but a warm handoff, ideally in person. At a reception, this is the most effective way to break through the crowd. Certainly this can be done via e-mail too. 
  4. Know thyself–My experience is that senior execs will turn the questions on you. After the small talk and the ice breakers, they want to know what you think and where you are going. You have to be confident about these answers. You do not have to be all-knowing but thoughtful and substantive. These conversations boil down to ad hoc interviews and you should treat them as such.  
  5. How can I continue this conversation?–People try to have THE conversation when they meet this senior exec. They try and say everything. The point of the first encounter, like any first meeting, is to get and give a good impression and continue the conversation. Now that you have been introduced and made a good impression, then find out how to continue it.  

Networking up is risky stuff. Don't do it unless you have done your homework and prepared yourself. Once you learn these things and do not rely on your improv theater skills 🙂 networking up can be enjoyable. I have been thrown into situations with the highest level executives and these rules have always served me well. Although there are a few jerks out there, generally execs like to converse about regular things, treated as peers and that instantly levels the playing field. 

Remember, while networking up maybe your goal, your networking opportunities are all around you!

Thanks for reading. John

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