1: The First Moment You Meet an Executive or Other Key Business Contact
Who in a company receives the least positive feedback of anyone in the organization? The janitor? No. The CEO. The higher up you go in an organization, the fewer “attaboys” and acknowledgments you receive on a daily basis. Although managers and supervisors are generally conscientious about giving hourly workers and lower-level professionals positive feedback for a job well done, no one feels it is necessary to do that for the executives. Those who get this kind of feedback generally respond very well to it; why, then, don’t we offer our higher-ups the same strokes?
Executives listen to information all day and deal with problems. Positive communication is in short supply some days. When executives are at social functions or even company receptions, they, like anyone else, would welcome hearing about what’s going right, interesting observations, and breaking news from the community and their industry. When you realize this, you’ve got the basis for a model of what to talk about when you suddenly find yourself standing beside an executive at a company function or at an industry conference.
There you are, standing by the coffee urn or the cash bar, and suddenly you realize that the person standing next to you is a vice president from your company. Should you take the coward’s way out? Tell yourself that he does not want to talk to someone of your lowly status and quietly edge away? Not if you are trying to advance your career. For all you know, the executive would welcome someone new to talk to and may be trying to avoid the same old crowd he hears from all the time. You could be just the person who will turn a tedious night into a refreshing experience for him.
Sometimes, when professionals are put on the spot to converse with an executive, they become desperate to say something—anything. Big mistake. An inexperienced conversationalist may say something that comes out as critical or shallow. Your response to the opportunity to make a great impression becomes pretty unimpressive.
So what can you actually say? Think M.I.S.S.I.O.N. possible! The M.I.S.S.I.O.N. model is a method to help you come up with timely conversation starters that will save you from just standing there with that deer-in-the-headlights look on your face as you struggle to come up with something to say. More important, it will guide you to positive topics, so you will have no regrets. A conversation with an executive is a wonderful opportunity for revealing who you are and the intelligence and creativity you can bring to her organization. The M.I.S.S.I.O.N. model helps ensure you make good use of that opportunity. You want to make sure that the meeting with you is memorable to the executive—in a good way. M.I.S.S.I.O.N. is a mnemonic—a memory aid consisting of letters that stand for key words. In this case, the letters will help you remember the following topics you can use to have a successful conversation with an executive:
The M.I.S.S.I.O.N. Model
M = Milestones in projects
I = Individual contributions and experiences
S = Speeches, events, and articles that connect you
S = Self—as in be yourself
I = Interesting nuggets
O = Opportunities
N = Neighborly talk M = Milestones in projects
Everyone congratulates the boss at the finish of a project. But you will be the exceptional person if you notice and comment on milestones along the way. A milestone is one step of many that must be accomplished between the beginning and the end of a successful project. Making a positive comment about a milestone that has been achieved on a long-term project says many complimentary things about you. First of all, it says that you noticed; therefore you are observant, unique, and perceptive, and you care about the company. It also says you are refreshingly different from all those who haven’t mentioned it. You’re the thoughtful one who’s brought up this mini-success in a conversation.
Milestone events vary according to what your company is trying to achieve in any particular year. For example, if a company is trying to launch the sale of a new drug, some milestone events might include these:
• Passing initial in-house testing
• Gaining FDA approval
• Determining a name for the product
• Completing the marketing plan
After the launch, an executive will be hearing from everyone. Be among the handful who appreciates the significance of small successes along the way.
Here’s another example: the establishment of a new subsidiary or branch or even a relocation of your company. The following are likely milestone events for such an opening:
• Selection of a site
• Board approval to move forward
• Selection of an architect or builder
• Publication of related news articles
Ken Blanchard has had an extraordinarily successful career as a business author, motivational speaker, and thought leader. Much of his work, especially the bestseller One Minute Manager, is based on the quest to “catch people doing something right.” His premise is that it takes no ingenuity to see and comment on what is going wrong. The extraordinary individual will hone the ability to comment on the things that are going right. In a world of “picture straighteners,” the employee who can ignore the obvious complaints and criticisms, and instead offer intelligent observations about things that are going well, will shoot to the top. Such an employee will stand out from the crowd and be listened to by people at all levels of the organization. I = Individual contributions and experiences
Denver resident Joe Ratway of Performance Advantage tells about an encounter with one of his personal heroes, Federico Peña, former secretary of transportation and former mayor of Denver. Joe happened to be on an escalator traveling parallel to the escalator Peña and his wife were on in the Denver airport constructed during Peña’s time as mayor. Joe leaned across the handrails and, with a sweeping gesture to the magnificent airport, said, “Mr. Secretary, I just want to thank you for the legacy you gave me and all the citizens of Denver.” Peña waited for Joe at the bottom of the escalator, introduced him to his wife, and engaged him in conversation. This conversation would never have taken place if Joe had not been presumptuous enough to speak up.
All of us like to be acknowledged for our individual contributions and experiences. Many executives have pretty healthy egos and respond well to concrete acknowledgment of specific accomplishments. For example, if you meet an executive who has recently been named chair of the local chamber of commerce, congratulate him. If you don’t overdo the compliments, this will come across not as self-serving flattery but as simply good manners. It’s always appropriate to congratulate executives who have recently been acknowledged in ways such as these:
• Elected to an office in any organization or charity
• Selected to serve on a board
• Given a noteworthy honor or award, like “Business-person of the Year”
• Promoted within your company
• Invited to speak at a visible industry or community event
Here are some other accomplishments you could acknowledge:
• A successful campaign to get legislation passed or ordinances changed that benefit your business
• An industry award or recognition
• Implementation of a program that the executive has always shown an interest in, such as a mentoring program or a technology change
• An award or recognition for the executive’s company
When you mention an individual’s contributions, it’s critical to have something positive to say that is also specific and not just general fawning. Make it a practice to read about your company, your industry, and influential people in both areas. Read all of your company’s newsletters, magazines, and prominent website articles. Read at least one trade magazine monthly. Also read one general business publication like the Wall Street Journal or a business magazine. If you read these on a regular basis, you will never be without something of value to contribute to an unexpected conversation.
Warren Buffett, legendary investor and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, agrees that reading is the strategy to employ for success in communicating with business people—according to the independent Harvard weekly Harbus, in the article “My Pilgrimage to Omaha: The Great Warren Buffett Shares Personal Insights, Advice with Eager Group of HBSers” (January 23, 2006).
When asked for his advice to graduating MBA students, Buffett, who plays bridge with Bill Gates and poker with Alan Greenspan, said, “Read, read, read.” He credits reading with not only the start of his career but also his current successes. Early in his career he would read the bound version of Moody’s page by page, looking for undervalued companies. Today he is more likely to be reading the Korean Standard & Poor’s, but the principle remains the same: read to look for opportunities in business.
If you handle your own accomplishments and goals tactfully and not boastfully, these can be conversation topics as well. No one likes a braggart, but we do like people who take joy and pride in their work. Do not hesitate to share your enthusiasm for company successes in which you played a part. Mention your contribution, but be sure to praise the company or department and not yourself. The following are examples of comments you could make to share a moment of success with an executive:
• “You know the SR-5 bill you recently helped get passed in the legislature? I was part of the team that did the market research on that. Congratulations.”
• “I saw the new sales script you gave us for telephoning potential new customers in our community. I want to tell you that I think the new model will help us win more mid-size businesses. Even though we have only a three-person sales team at this point, I am very proud that I led the team in sales last year. I think I can sell even more using the new model.”
• “I wanted to thank you for calling the president of Logitech for us. All of us who worked on that sale were excited about winning that account, and I think your call made a difference.”
• “Did you see that our team in accounting received an A+ rating from the auditors? That should help us next year when we file our Sarbanes-Oxley report.”
• “Do you remember when you asked all teachers who sponsor a team or extracurricular activity to trim their budgets by 10 percent this year? I just wanted to let you know that we will exceed that. We have been taking a hard look at some things, and I think we may actually trim our budget by 13 percent. It helped to have a target.”
• “I know you were very active in the Cobb County Chapter of the American Institute of Banking early in your career. I was just elected treasurer. Any advice?”
• “On the Augusta Newsprint project, did you know that every member of our implementation team participated in making the recommendations the client liked so much? It was really one of the best collaborations I have ever been a part of; I learned a great deal about teamwork, and you can’t argue with the results.”
Don’t mention how many hours you worked or that you did not finish some nights until 3:00 A.M.; there is nothing impressive about drudgery, and you will sound as if you are whining. Just show your joy in a job well done and give credit to the executive, the team, the company, and finally yourself. Show you have a stake in the company by taking pride in its successes and recognitions. Don’t brag, but demonstrate that you were a fully engaged part of the team that brought a project to a successful conclusion. Donald Trump recently met an audience member as he prepared to tell his rise-and-fall story at the Real Estate and Wealth Expo in Atlanta, Georgia. He pointed to a casually dressed person in the front and asked him if he knew the story. The person said he did, so Trump told him, “Tell the story.” Unknowingly, Trump invited a motivational speaker onstage. In that moment, Orrin Hudson “was hired.” Anyone having watched the popular show The Apprentice understands how tough Donald Trump can be as a thriving businessperson. In the Apprentice reality show, he gives two opposing groups a challenging task and watches them over the course of the project. At the end of each show, he grills each team on their performances and ultimately decides who continues on the show. For those who do not make it, Trump utters the blunt words, “You’re fired!” The passion that Trump has about being successful is similar to the message Hudson routinely relays to kids. Naturally, Trump was impressed with Hudson’s delivery and promised to call him. With the crowd buzzing, Hudson told The Chess Drum that streams of attendees came forth to praise him on his impromptu presentation. Perhaps most in the audience were not familiar with the Hudson story. However, Hudson’s story is fairly well-known. His numerous interviews and articles have been featured on major TV stations, newspapers and websites (more than a dozen on The Chess Drum). Most recently Hudson was the subject of an article on the front of the Lifestyle section in the March 4th  edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The story highlighted the efforts Hudson has made in the lives of youth, including that of Aaron Porter, a 6’5” eighteen-year-old who had incurred serious charges of juvenile misconduct (including an attempted murder of his father). Porter met Hudson and received enough inspiration and coaching that he won the first annual Georgia Association for Alternative Education (GAAE) state-wide chess championship. (www.thechessdrum.net/newsbriefs/2007/NB_OHudson2.html, March 7, 2007) S = Speeches, events, and articles that connect you
If there are truly six degrees of separation between each of us and every other person on the earth, then there should be only a few degrees between you and any executive you meet. After all, you are both in business and success oriented. The obvious connection between you and the executive in front of you may be surprisingly easy to talk about: it is the event or speech you are attending. What brings the executive there? What brings you there? Are there commonalities?
Speeches. If a speech or presentation was made, a great topic of conversation is to pick out a specific point the speaker made and discuss that with the executive. If you make a generalization like “Good speech” or ask a generic question like “What did you think about the speech?” you may actually be putting the executive on the spot. Plus, it comes across as rather unimpressive to make a comment that reflects no discernment or thoughtful observation on your part. You are in no way demonstrating your intelligence or industry knowledge with such a statement.
Instead, choose a noncontroversial but interesting point the speaker made and discuss it with the executive. Don’t put the executive on the spot by asking about a divisive issue, or she may make her excuse to get away at the first opportunity. You should offer an observation first and then open up the discussion for the executive to contribute. Here are some examples:
• “I thought her comparison of changes in our industry to the changes in the banking industry in the eighties was interesting. What was your take on that?”
• “She made a strong case for departmental branding. I am still undecided about the value, though. What is your perspective on that?”
• “I thought the strongest point in his argument was the long-term cost containment. You have a much broader perspective on that. What do you think?”
Excerpted from 10 Make-or-Break Career Moments by Casey Hawley. Copyright © 2010 by Casey Hawley. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.