No matter where you are in your career journey, you’ve probably peeked around your industry at some point and spotted influential people and power players who could help you when it comes to your dream career.
To network with those a rung or two above you in the pecking order, you have to invest in the power of people — here’s how to do it:
Never Reach Out Cold
Connecting with decision makers and influencers is different from researching a company and connecting with the employees inside it. It requires a different strategy and it’s a long-term game. Successfully connecting with this caliber of people requires time, patience, and a willingness to operate a bit outside your comfort zone.
If you reach out with an email about you and your needs, they’re going to ignore it. You’ve probably had this experience - you reach out and you get radio silence - these folks are busy!
Decision makers and influencers are generally going 100+ miles an hour with their head in a million different places. While in their heart they might be sincerely interested in connecting with you or getting to know you - their schedule just doesn’t have time for it.
Find out which events they go to. It’s fine to start off with some educated guesses or you can start asking people who might know, such as your coworkers or colleagues. Search out events like industry associations and meetings, conferences, charities, fundraisers, meetups - any events you know they go to or are likely to go to.
If you’ve been in your industry for at least a year, you probably already know most of the top events these people go to. Find a way - financially, logistically, and geographically - to attend them (not all of them; be deliberate). Figure out which events are worth your time and which aren’t.
But being in the same place and sharing airspace is not enough. You need to actually get in front of that person.
How do you do that?
Use The Involvement Solution
The idea here is to get involved in something that you care about, but that the decision maker cares about too. Once you’ve identified events and in person situations that the decision maker or makers might be, you find a way to get involved.
You can offer to help with events, volunteer for the organization, be an emissary of a non-profit, industry association, networking group…any way you can think of to get involved. When you bond over that type of commonality, it allows you to access them in a different kind of way.
This is so much more powerful than sending a blind email and having an executive assistant delete it so the important person never sees it!
Say Something That Truly Connects
If you anticipate a certain person will be at the event you’re attending, you'll want to get a sense of what they’re about before you meet them so that you are better equipped to navigate a conversation with them.
Start with the basics - figure out what's going on in their space, understand a bit about what's going on in their business, and know who their competitors are. If you’re staying in your vertical, this will be stuff you already know. For example, if you’re in online advertising, you probably know who the major players are, who their CEOs are, what their beef is with one and other, and so on.
Here is a detailed example of what I’m encouraging you to do:
I was at an event where I knew the CEO of a company that had just sold for several billion dollars was going to be in attendance. All I did was skim the news before the event. That set me up to be able to have a fascinating conversation with him about what’s next for him and his business and where he might need some help (and, running a staffing business, I knew someone who just sold a big company would definitely be having staffing issues).
Remember, you’re looking to establish trust and commonality. When you do your research and get a sense of who you’re meeting with before you meet them, you position yourself to be able to do that sincerely and effectively.
Talk Like a Friend
Decision makers and influencers and all the people one, two, or four levels above you - are all just people.
Too many of us are quick to place others we perceive as more successful on a pedestal, and it changes the way we perceive and interact with them. We become starstruck at best, and annoying at worst.
You want to position yourself as a friend, not a fan.
Here’s a real world example:
I am a huge Seth Godin fan. One day I was at my neighborhood wine store and I spotted him shopping.
That was my moment of opportunity. I politely interjected myself into his conversation with the store clerk by saying, “Excuse me, are you Seth Godin?” He shook his head yes. I turned to the clerk and said, “Here’s one of the most amazing change agents of the present day. This man helps people across the global by empowering them to do great things.”
This led to a 10 min conversation in which I was able to have a real dialogue with one of my personal role models. It was very cool and very helpful, and it, once again, confirmed what I already know:
A true and legitimate compliment sounds and feels different. And it often leads to further conversation, giving you grounds to develop a relationship. That’s not the same as just sucking up to someone or flattering them.
When you encounter someone at an event that you perceive to be “higher” than you in any way, remember they’re just a person, just like you. Treat him or her like a person, not like they’re on a pedestal. Give a strong handshake, look them in the eye, treat them with respect, and speak like a peer. They will be grateful.
Almost everyone is asking for something from a decision maker. They want a job, a connection, a favor. Your goal is to figure out a way to help this other person, even if there is no benefit to you. You’ll do well by doing good, you’ll be remembered, and doors will open as a result.