How to Grab the Attention of Successful People to Get Ahead at Work
We’ve heard it time and again: Who you know matters. You might be perfectly content in your personal life to limit your dinner parties to a few close friends, but when it comes to your career, getting ahead can often depend on having a wide network of connections. Sometimes, the most mind-blowing opportunities can come from people several rungs above you on the career ladder. The problem is, those people have to know you (and like you) in order to give you those chances.
It might seem like a pipe dream to get your company’s CEO to give you the time of day, let alone grab the attention of one of your industry’s top leaders. However, it is possible if you’re intentional with your actions. Sending a cold email asking a VIP to “pick their brain” isn’t going to be effective most times, but that’s not to say a well-worded email can’t get the results you want. In the same way, having the right type of conversation at a networking event, business dinner, or conference can start opening doors as well.
The key in all of this is to make yourself interesting to important people. That might seem daunting, but in reality you likely have the goods. It just takes a little practice to make those meaningful connections. If you’re looking to advance your career, getting noticed by the success stories in your industry can be a huge help. Whether you reach out online or in person, here are a few tips to try.
1. Become an expert in a niche topic
You might think that industry VIPs don’t want to learn anything from you. But if you have reputed expertise in a certain area, you might be surprised. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, marketing strategist Dorie Clark writes that you become infinitely more interesting when you have genuine expertise about a certain topic.
“If someone is drawn to a topic that you’re knowledgeable about, you’ll move to the top of their list,” she explains. This might not work if you’re trying to target the attention of a specific person. But it can automatically widen your network, as people begin to seek you out for your input.
According to Clark, the area of expertise can be within your career description, but it can also be a hobby or outside interest. For example, she tells the story of a financial journalist who began to write part-time about food and wine. The journalist’s Wall Street contacts would contact him about restaurant suggestions for client dinners, deepening the connections he had with several influential people.
Having a tested knowledge base of web development or book publishing can put you on a level playing field with contacts who might otherwise be out of reach. However, so can interests in wine, playing the saxophone, or gardening. Hone your natural interests, and don’t be afraid to make them known among your work network.
2. Become the most interesting person at the party
Chances are there are numerous people at a networking event or business dinner who are more interesting than you are — at least in your own estimation. The key is to identify the facts about yourself that are unique, and worthy of starting a conversation.
It can be easy to forget the tidbits in your history that set you apart, Clark notes. However, ask a friend or close colleague to identify those items for you, and return the favor for them. Maybe you spent your childhood in a foreign country, or you hiked the Appalachian Trail. Perhaps you’re taking cooking classes in your spare time, or you worked for a carnival as a teenager. Not only do these tidbits add a layer of expertise, as in the first tip, but they also add an interesting fact to your biography, besides your current job title.
Finding a commonality is vital, Clark points out. But that’s the bare minimum when you want to make an impression. To establish genuine interest in yourself, these other facts will help to make yourself stand out — and be remembered long after the other faces fade away.
3. Don’t interrupt
This is vital to remember when you’re in person with a group of potential new contacts. Yes, you want to give the impression you know something. However, having a quick reply to every opinion — or worse yet, interjecting your own at every opportunity — quickly makes you the networking pariah.
When you’re in a dialogue with anyone, but especially someone you want to impress, make sure you’re using the listening skills your mother taught you. Even if important people know they’re a VIP, they want to feel like they’re being valued. You might think you’re being impressive by jumping in with your two cents whenever they take a breath. In reality, you’re suggesting that what you have to say is more important than their input.
That’s why you’ll hardly ever see important people interrupt someone else, Inc. contributing editor Jeff Haden writes. “Remarkably successful people already know what they think — they want to learn from what everyone else thinks,” he explains. Instead, ask questions when they’ve finished, and give nonverbal cues while they’re talking to show you’re listening — actually listening — to what they have to say.
4. Have something to offer
If you’d rather try to connect online, cold emails can be effective. They just require finesse. Ramit Sethi, author of the book and blog I Will Teach You to Be Rich, writes in a blog post that the best way to start a connection is to offer something you know they need or might be interested in.
This requires homework, Sethi acknowledges, since you’ll need to have a good idea of problems they’re already trying to solve, or predict issues they’re trying to navigate. Once you do that, however, you can position yourself to be the answer. “You can offer them an enticing menu of potential solutions that outlines exactly how you can eliminate their biggest headaches. Make them an offer they can’t refuse,” Sethi writes.
If you can’t get that specific, Sethi suggests briefly outlining the skills you have that could be of use, blatantly spelling out how it would benefit them. This approach makes you immediately valuable to the recipient, and puts the ball in their court. It’s less about taking up their time with a “pick your brain” lunch, and more about the value they’ll get out of it. Not sure how to do this? Sethi provides an example on his blog.
5. Make yourself the center of a network
If you feel like you’re on the outskirts of every network you’re in, create a new one yourself. It will likely start out small, but you’d be surprised how something can grow when you intentionally seek out the most interesting people you already know. Clark gives the example of a New York resident who began hosting twice-monthly “Influencers” dinners at his home, featuring interesting people from a number of fields. He invited the most interesting people he knew, and asked them to do the same. Six years later, the guest roster has included Nobel laureates and Olympic athletes.
Dinner parties are a great way to build a network, but it’s not the only way. Start a Facebook group centered around a certain interest, or plan activities and invite others to join you. One way or another, the key is to draw interesting people to you, not keep waiting for them to notice you on the sidelines.
6. When in doubt, use flattery
Nobody likes an egotistical person, but stroking someone else’s ego can go a long way. As long as you go about this in non-creepy, professional ways, you’re likely to get positive feedback. Muse contributor Aja Frost describes a technique she uses on Twitter, that would likely translate to most forms of social media. She finds a recent interview with someone she admires, then transforms a compelling quote from that interview into an image. She then posts that image to Twitter, including the interview link and tagging the person. (You can see the step-by-step process in her post.)
Not everyone responds to this, of course. However, Frost said that more often than not, the person will either follow her, or at least retweet it. This can yield additional followers, who can end up being influential themselves. (One note: Frost said in her own experiments with this, it’s most successful among people with fewer than 10,000 followers. Of course, there’s no harm in choosing a high-profile person.)
The key to this strategy is the image. Lots of people will quote movers and shakers, but not everyone takes the time to create the “Quotable,” as they’re called. Plus, that image has more value on your own page — and others — than the simple text quote or link, Frost notes. In the best cases, you can leverage a Twitter interaction into a dialogue. In others, the image still provides valuable content for your followers that highlights your interests.