One of my clients, Catherine, was a senior partner at a major law firm. Before that, she had been the General Counsel for one of the largest companies in the world. It’s a powerful and important position.
For most, it would be the crowning achievement of an extraordinary career. Because of this, Catherine has what they call “street cred”—that is, the credibility that only comes from having had to live by your wits in the rough-and-tumble real world of business.
One day I had breakfast with Catherine, and I decided to get some free counsel. Not about legal matters—about relationships.
“Catherine,” I began, “I’m curious. As a senior partner, you are trying to build relationships with in-house counsel at large companies and sell your legal services to them. But just a few years ago you were the General Counsel. You hired lawyers and law firms all over the world.” I paused. “So tell me—what it’s like being on the other side of the desk?”
Catherine stopped eating. She shifted her gaze away from her scrambled eggs to me. I think I saw a glint in her eyes.
“Before I got promoted, I was the Deputy General Counsel at my company. But even though it was a very important position, the outside law firms we worked with—and other types of consultants—always wanted to talk to my boss, the General Counsel. They often tried to bypass me. They thought he made all the decisions, and they invested everything in their relationship with him. They treated me more like a gatekeeper.”
I could see where this was going!
She continued: “On the day the announcement of my promotion to General Counsel hit the newspapers, my office was flooded with calls from big law firms all over the country. They all wanted to talk to me. They coveted my business. All of a sudden I was very popular. So do you know what I said to all those blue-chip law firm partners who called me that day? The ones who never bothered to build a relationship with me?” She paused. You could hear a pin drop at our table. “I politely asked each one of them, ‘Where were you five years ago?’”
Many professionals ask me, “How can I build more relationships with CEOs and other top executives?” The best answer is this principle: Follow the person, not the position. Build relationships with smart, motivated, interesting, and ambitious people, even if they’re not in an important job right now. Follow them throughout their careers.
You see, really important people—those who are the top of their careers in any field—have brought their advisors along with them over many years. While it is not impossible to break into someone’s inner circle after they have achieved great success, it’s also not an easy task.
Whether you’re 20 or 50, you know interesting people who are going places. Follow them, stay in touch with them, and cultivate your relationship with them over many years. The fruits will be enormous. Not only will they help your career, but—perhaps more important—you will have an indelible impact on their success as well.
Don’t just focus on connecting with top executives or other successful people at the peak of their careers. Go for the bright ones on the rise.
As a side benefit—before you know it—you’ll also end up knowing a sprinkling of very important people in high positions. And when this happens, the relationship will be very different than if you are a latecomer. You will share history together. You’ll be relaxed around each other. You will be treated like the old friend you are.
Follow the person, not the position. Make a list of 12 to 15 people you know who are not yet at the peak of their success or position. Pick passionate, motivated, talented individuals. Ascertain what their top 3-5 goals and priorities are. Knowing these, decide how you can best add value in the relationship. Then, stay in touch with these individuals regularly over time.
What’s the best way to meet CEOs? Before they are promoted, of course.
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