Tips for Making Small Talk With Bigwigs

One of the things that can befuddle managers, even experienced ones, is how to make small talk with the big boss.

When you are talking about someone who has authority over you, be it your boss’s boss or the CEO, the word “small” becomes relative. Anything involving a boss can have a big impact. Conversation with a superior can be fraught with peril but it can also be a great opportunity. Peril comes from the fear of saying the wrong thing; opportunity arises because you can reveal a new dimension of yourself to other.

You can increase the odds of success if you prepare. Yes, actually plan out what you will say to the senior manager. This works well if you know that the CEO is coming to visit your department or if you have the opportunity chat with him at an all-employee gathering. So here’s what you can do.

Do your homework. Learn the issues the senior team is focused on. Ideally everyone in the company should know the strategic priorities. Bone up on these so you know them, too. Think in advance what you will say to a senior person if you meet her in person. Work out a key message about your projects, your career and yourself. This is good practice whether you meet a senior person or not. Finally, if it’s a more social meeting, you might try to learn of a boss’s personal interests — hobbies, sports he or she likes, or their volunteer activities.

Be yourself. When you are introduced to the senior leader, make eye contact as you shake hands. Smile and act relaxed. Feel free to ask questions about what’s going on in the company. If appropriate, talk about what you are working on. This is your opportunity to use your messages. Strive to be brief and to the point.

Read the situation. Keep speaking if the boss is interested; if not, thank the person for his time and move on, even when you didn’t get the opportunity to use your key messages. In some ways your sense of decorum is more important than what you say. Rattling on when no one is interested marks you as lacking in self-awareness; knowing when to end the conversation says much about your ability to read the situation.

Such preparation is good when you know in advance you may meet a senior executive or a member of the board, but what about accidental encounters, say at the airport, a social gathering, or even a sporting event? The good news is that what works for prepared encounters works for impromptu ones. Just assume that someday soon you will run into a senior person and prepare for it as you would for a more predictable encounter. And that preparation will pay off in other contexts too, such as during team meetings or conversations with clients.

That’s why you should practice your key messages from time to time, say on your drive to work. You can even practice by recording them on your mobile phone, just to see how you sound. The exercise will give you confidence that you have what it takes to have a clear and coherent conversation with people in power.

One of my favorite stories about Winston Churchill, taken from Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, is an encounter he had with a young New Zealand airman during the Second World War. The airman had crawled out of the cockpit of a bomber with an engine on fire and extinguished the flames. When Churchill met the young man he noted the lad’s nervousness. “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence,” Churchill said. When the man said he was, Churchill replied, “Then you can imagine how awkward and humble I feel in yours.”

Never forget that senior leaders are people first; executives second. Never forget your own personal abilities. And never forget that making small talk can have a big impact on your career.


Start Networking Right Away

Even if you have an aversion to networking—as many people do—it’s imperative to start forging deliberate connections within the first 30 to 60 days after a promotion, the period when people in a new division or company are making up their minds about whether you’re dependable—or a loser who should never have been hired.

Most people don’t take to networking naturally, which is why it’s often tough for rising executives to be systematic about reaching out to people who can help them. But networking is the best way to acquire crucial information about the job and succeed early. Otherwise, you might lack the facts needed for an important proposal, for example, or might bring up a smart “new” idea that has failed in the past. This “courageous networking,” as I call it, requires recruiting networking targets both inside and outside the firm—even at competitors.

So if you’re newly hired or promoted, here are a few things to do right away:

Figure out who should be in your network.

It shouldn’t be just the people who eat lunch at the same time and in the same place you do. Ask yourself, Who can help me? Who knows what’s going on? Who gets around roadblocks? Who are the critical links in the supply or information chain? Your boss can be a big help by identifying people, setting up meetings, going with you to conventions, and making introductory phone calls. But your boss isn’t the only one with valuable information. One of the best contacts I made in an early job at a retailer was the person who implemented office moves—he always knew who was on the way up. I also got useful advice from friends in the legal department, who told me, in broad terms, about the major problems the organization was facing. And a good friend who managed the company’s lobbyists in Washington informed me about impending government regulations.

Dare to introduce yourself.

Most people will be more receptive than you think. No one turns down a call from someone who starts the conversation with “I’m new in my job, and I’m trying to get to know people who….” When a competing firm in my industry hires a new chief, I write a congratulatory note and say I’d like to drop in. I’ve never been turned down. Knowing these CEOs makes it easy to fix problems, such as a competitor’s salespeople spreading false rumors about my company. I pick up the phone, explain the situation, and it’s fixed.

Remember that networking is not a one-way street.

Reciprocate by sharing information you know will be useful, and stay in touch by, for example, sending people relevant articles once a quarter or congratulating your contact about a job change. Many executives spend about an hour a week maintaining their networks, but greater effort yields greater payoff. The marketing manager of one large company claims he spends two hours a day at it.

As horizontal relationships become just as vital as vertical ones in global organizations and companies change direction ever more frequently, it’s critical to maintain a good network of contacts. Time spent in the early days building a network will save time down the road when you’re trying to solve problems, leverage resources, and achieve success.

Why Picasso Outearned van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso had a lot in common. They each had a distinctive style of painting that has become immediately identifiable. Think of “The Starry Night” or “Three Musicians.” In fact, both artists have become sui generis, and their paintings have sold for tens of millions of dollars. But there’s one huge difference between the two painters: van Gogh died a pauper while Picasso left an estate estimated at $750 million. And the reason, according to Gregory Berns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, is that van Gogh was a loner and the charismatic Picasso was an active member of multiple social circles. To use the current vernacular of social networking science, van Gogh was a solitary “node” who had few connections, whereas Picasso was a “hub” who had embedded himself in a vast network that stretched across various social lines.