The Chance Meeting with the VIP

How do you take advantage of a chance meeting with a VIP — the company’s CEO, the partner with the “fun” work, the client you’re dying to work with?  What should you say?  Today’s guest poster, Belle from Capitol Hill Style, to weigh in — working in the Capitol she’s met her fair share of VIPs.  She has some fabulous tips below, so enjoy! – Kat. (Pictured: Velvet ropes, originally uploaded to Flickr by Peter576.)

Velvet ropes, originally uploaded to Flickr by Peter576.Walking through the marble halls of the United States Capitol, you are surrounded by VIPs.  Every elevator, every corridor, every conference room is populated by Members of Congress, high-level Administration officials, television pundits, and occasionally, Hollywood celebrities.  You can’t swing a Longchamp bag in this place without hitting someone noteworthy.

But how can you make a good impression on these VIPs and maximize the situation for your benefit?

Don’t Fade Away.  More often than not, a person’s first instinct is to agree with everything a VIP says.  To listen intently and nod when he is speaking, to laugh at his jokes, and generally give him the floor.  After all, he is important and you are not.

But the truth is, you are better off fawning over the VIP like a Twihard with a passion for public policy than you are pleasantly fading into the background.

Seize the Moment.  Don’t be afraid to talk to a VIP, even if you have to break the ice with something

I once brokered an important relationship with a Congresswoman from the South because I complimented her handbag in an elevator.  We then spent a few minutes talking about how much we love Gilt Groupe and how great Rebecca Minkoff is.  When we had exhausted that topic, she asked me what I was working on for my Boss.

Ten minutes later, I was adding her as a co-sponsor to my Boss’s bill and talking to her legislative aide about the possibility of holding hearings.

Unless the person looks busy or seems completely uninterested in talking to you, identify a piece of common ground and jump into the fray.  As long as you’re polite and behave appropriately, the worst thing that can happen is that the VIP talks to you out of pity.

Be prepared. If you know that you’re going to be meeting with a VIP, take the time to brush up on their background, what they want to discuss in the meeting and write up a few preliminary questions.  Someone who came to play is always appreciated.

Also, don’t limit yourself just to the reason for your meeting.  A friend once bonded with a Cabinet Secretary because he knew that the Secretary had season tickets to the Orioles.  During a lull in a meeting, he casually mentioned that he was going to a game.  Six weeks later, he left his mid-level Hill job to work as the Secretary’s personal assistant.

Any information that you can gather that will show that you’re a knowledgeable and competent employee is helpful.  But sometimes, it’s thinking outside the box that will yield the best results.

Don’t Kiss the Ring. My co-worker, a dedicated social butterfly with an enviable Rolodex full of VIPs, says that the trick is to talk to a VIP like a friend of a friend who you’re meeting for the first time.   Make a genuine effort to get to know him, but never treat a VIP like he is above you.

VIPs are coddled and pampered by nearly everyone around them.  Often, their looking for authentic, confident people who can set aside their status and like them for who they are.  So don’t be afraid to make a few jokes, give the VIP a little bit of a hard time and talk to him like he’s an old friend from college.

Working in a building filled with VIPs, you develop a sense of how to interact with them.  Professionalism is important, but you can’t be so afraid of making a mistake that you miss the opportunity to make an important connection.

Readers, how have you taken advantage of chance meetings with important people in your company or professional lives? Do you have any additional advice?

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Comments

  1. This is such great advice. Once as a new associate in a new state I was asked to fill in at Inns of Court for an attorney. I didn’t even yet know who served on the Supreme Court in this state.

    I had a really long conversation with a nice man. Other people kept trying to speak with him but he always brought the conversation back to what we had been talking about. (My prior career pre-law school, his kid’s sports team, etc.) I later found out he was the big federal judge in my new state. I haven’t appeared before him yet but I guarantee you the reason he was so interested in speaking with me is because I was the only person there not trying to kiss his butt!

    • Haha, yeah. I am friends with a federal judge who goes to my church. One of my friends, who also goes to church with us, practices before his court but had never appeared before him. We are all involved in an activity together, and didn’t find out he was a judge until he once sent us an email from his courts address. He knew we were lawyers. Now I run into him a lot on my commute and we always chat for the 20-minute bus ride.

      Most people, no matter what they do, are not interested in talking about work outside of work. You’re much more likely to make a connection with someone if you don’t bring up work.

  2. Excellent advice. I’ve never gotten starry-eyed over VIPs, but I do make it a point to be polite and respectful. Don’t want to be overly familiar.

    On a totally unrelated note, I accidentally made myself look like a complete jerk today. A coworker circulated a draft of a document this morning that, to my understanding, had not gone out yet. I understood her to be seeking feedback and replied with several corrections and suggestions (not trivial ones, either ~ there were blatant errors in the document). Turns out she had already filed the document and was circulating it as an FYI. :/

    • Did you do a “reply all” or did you just reply to her? I’m hoping it’s the latter, in which case, it limits the appearance of jerkiness. There’s something to that old adage, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We can’t win ‘em all; I hope it doesn’t cause any tension between you and your colleagues.

      • Oh, it was “Reply All,” of course. Which I almost *never* use, but her original email really sounded like, “Hey, other subcommittee people, here’s the draft, please share your input and I’ll send it when we all agree on the final form.” I was sharing my suggestions with the group in part because I wanted their input on phrasing, too ~ I understood the document to be something she drafted to get us started, but something we’d all sign off on before submitting. Great, huh? To be honest, I don’t think she *should* have submitted it without getting input from the rest of us, but it’s too late now!

        • Sounds like she looks as bad as you do. I wouldn’t worry about it – if she didn’t say in her email that it was already submitted I can understand why you’d assume it was a draft.

        • Here’s hoping she’s appropriately embarrassed to have non-trivial errors present in a doc she sent out!

  3. Thread hijack…I recently did a number of rounds of interviews for my dream job with a large law firm. They seemed to really like me and, within 1 week of having my resume, put me through four rounds of interviews. That was a few weeks ago. I recently followed up with the partner who told me that they’re going to be hiring a few people and so they’re waiting to interview everyone before deciding. Is this normal? Do hiring committees normally wait to see everything that comes in before making a decision? I am so anxious!

    • Yes, this is absolutely normal. I had my last interview for my dream job a month ago, and the company has been reviewing other resumes ever since to find someone to directly compare me with before making a decision. They haven’t even brought anyone in to interview since meeting with me, so I am hoping that they cut off the resume review process and finalize their decision soon (in my favor, of course!). I’m lucky in that I am getting some info on the side from the recruiter. The best thing you can do is put it out of your mind.

      As my recruiter pointed out, a few years ago they would have made a decision in days or weeks, but recently the hiring process has started to take more like 60-90 days overall. I’ve been interviewing/talking to them since August. Hang in there. If it went well, you’ll stay on top of the stack.

    • Very normal, and every place is different. They could have just gotten slammed with a big project so they anticipate they’ll need more people than expected, which means more time to wait while schedules match up for interviewees and interviewers. Add in any time for folks to travel to the interview, and you’re looking at awhile before a decision is made.

      Don’t be anxious! It’s a great sign they wanted to jump at you so quickly! I’d keep up the regular follow-ups to see if anything has changed. Also, keep looking – since they adjusted their hiring needs to a few people, they could easily change their minds again.

    • They could all wait, and also sometimes hiring committees only meet monthly. Doesn’t help the pins and needles, but it sounds like you’re positioned really well. Good luck!

  4. I would tweak this a bit to say, show respectful but confident deference.

    • Anonymous :

      Right, remembering that you are always representing your own boss, with whom you are not equals. Thus, you are not equals with your boss’ equal. Present well, as the best version of who you are, which is not the same as who they are.

      • I definitely consider myself an equal with just about everybody, including my boss and her boss, and any other executive in my company at all but the very highest levels. And that’s how I behave and am typically treated in return. At the absolute top, certain executives’ accomplishments put them in the stratosphere and command a much greater level of admiration and respect, but those are few and far between. I’m not talking about just any executive or even CEO.

        • Yeah. I’ve never worked anywhere where everyone wasn’t treated as equals. Some people are given better perks because they’ve paid their dues, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually better than their underlings.

          • Anonymous :

            Have you ever worked on the Hill? There are Senators, with their own elevators and train cars, with whom you are not supposed to speak, and there are Members, with whom you are not supposed to speak, and then there are we staff bees, happily and wonderfully and capably getting work done. It isn’t denigrating us to say that we are not equals with our bosses, elected to represent their states and districts. We work at the convenience and pleasure of our bosses. There is no illusion of equality. There isn’t supposed to be. We rep our bosses in all we do, and it’s our job to make them look good, not us. It’s all good.

          • So glad that when I opened this thread a lot of people had responded to the “we are not equal” comment. It also distresses me that the one response affirming the assumption of inequality is from someone who works in government. I sure bought that democracy is founded on equality. Senators and members of congress are not above me. They are supposed to me serving me and the rest of the population!

          • Just because there are different expectations and perks associated with certain positions does not mean that people shouldn’t consider themselves equal to most VIPs.

            I also agree that the examples of government servants acting like celebrities is pretty disturbing. “Convenience and pleasure of our bosses?” That is just taking things too far. I could never work for someone (at least not for long) with that type of attitude.

            FWIW, I work in an environment in which there are celebrities around all the time. Bodyguards, green rooms, riders, all that jazz. In some cases they are treated “differently” in accordance with their expectations and contracts. In most cases, we specifically treat them just like anyone else. With respect but not awe. Period.

        • You are everyone’s equal, as a human being. But in the companies where I have worked, small or large, the people at the top have more experience and/or knowledge, more authority, and more responsibility. Hence the term “manager.” So the people at the top are not “better than” the underlings, as people, but they are generally “better than” their subordinates at the work in question. If the person at the top doesn’t have the direct skills of their subordinates, they then generally have better judgment and more skill at managing people and projects.

          Has this not been your experience? Are the people at the top only there because they have “paid their dues?” Doesn’t sound like a very useful setup.

  5. I totally agree re not fading away and not kissing the ring. No matter how well-known someone is, and how confident they seem, they get to hear themselves talk all the time. They are familiar with their own ideas. They have heard their own jokes and war stories, well, every single time they have been told.

    Assuming this person is actually still in the game, s/he is interested in hearing a new idea or perspective. As a junior person who knows what she is talking about, you’re much better off adding something to the conversation than just trying to coast through it. It will set you apart and move you forward, one way or another. Obviously, be appropriate and know your place–but within those constraints, bring your best! Say something substantive! Don’t be scenery!

  6. Interesting that it’s suggested to “give the VIP a little bit of a hard time” – I’d say leave that toward the end of a first conversation, if at all, since that could rub someone the wrong way if you’re not in tune with his/her comfort level. I think mirroring body language goes a long way, and I certainly agree that projecting confidence should be one of the big takeaways here.

    • I actually agree completely with giving VIPs a “hard time.” My husband is a genius at doing that, and it has helped him cultivate some really strong relationships with VIPs. He starts slow and amps it up over time with people as he gets to know them. It’s a huge differentiator for him in a corporate environment that is extremely hierarchical. I really believe in treating VIPs like normal people, including having a sense of humor with them. It shows confidence.

      • I agree with BB completely. I am clerking right now, and I generally give the other judges a bit of a hard time the first time I meet them. Done with a smile and a good nature, and not about someting too personal, they always love it.

      • SF Bay Associate :

        I instinctively did this with a client (whom I unexpectly had contact with – I rarely have contact with clients). He’s a C-level at a company you all may have heard of, and I gave him a bit of a hard time. I realized belatedly that my behavior was inappropriate (saw the male senior associates eyebrows shoot up) and I thought I was in Trouble. Except the client calls ME now when he wants a copy of document we filed or something, and always asks after me when he meets with the senior associates and partners.

        Agree with Monday that the ribbing needs to be about nothing substantive or relating to professionalism whatsoever, and must be done carefully. I rib the client about his expensive hobby, the expensive toys that go with his expensive hobby, and all the effort he’s putting into improving at his expensive hobby. He’s also politically quite conservative (shocker for a man with his level of income -ha!), so he ribs me sometimes about traditional liberal causes. That makes me nervous (risk of Trouble), so I very gingerly and lightly rib back.

        • Again, I think this is different in academia. Academics love to argue ideas. Personal teasing migh just go over their heads, and isn’t a normal part of conversations among academics. In academia I think he way to stand out is to show that you have brilliant ideas and understand the heart of whatever issue is at hand (for the old guard) and show that you aren’t just in love with the sons of your own voice (for the new guard…or at least the ones who also have enough presence of mind to not be in love with the aounds of their own voices…). For examPle, I have a policy to *always* ask a question at every lecture, no matter what the topic. I make sure I don’t preface too much, and actually ask a question rather than giving my own mini lecture. It gets noticed and has won me some great networking contacts. If only I had more tolerance for ecOnomists with their heads up their asses I would go far…….:P

    • It has to be done very carefully, I guess. I have seen teasing upward–i.e. teasing someone more senior–go wrong, and wow is it painful to watch. The gist of the misstep in joking was either “you always come in really late/don’t put in that many hours” or “you dress sloppily.” When the VIP stops smiling or starts actually defending himself, you know you’ve gone too far.

      • I think the trick is to kid them about something more trivial, e.g. the performance of their favorite football team.

      • I agree. Especially if you’re a lot younger. Then it just seems kind of jerky. And just because you see them smile doesn’t always mean they’re pleased.

        • Exactly. It’s a fine line and when it’s done well, it goes great. Growing up my dad teased the heck out of me so I can take it as well as dish it out, as appropriate. Also, it all depends on what the VIP has already said, his/her mannerisms, what you know about his/her background, etc.

          I think the sports team example by Bonnie is spot-on.

      • Well see, now that’s just poor judgment. Nobody likes that kind of “taking a half day” (at 6pm) ribbing.

    • Negging the VIP! Mystery Method as applied to networking :-)

      • Nice “The Game” reference. An amazing life moment: calling a guy on it when he was trying out those techniques on me.

  7. I met the CEO of Wendy’s in a hot spring in WV. I never thought I would meet such a VIP (while wearing a bikini).

  8. In my previous job, I met a prominent member of the British royal family, who took an obvious interest in some of the technical legal aspects of the project we were working on and contributed meaningfully to the conversation. I was pretty impressed since I had previously taken the view that most of the time such people acted as figureheads only. In a sort of opposite twist to the topic of this thread, it became totally obvious to me that this person simply wanted to be treated as one of the gang, and not as a VIP at all (and FAOD, this was a member of the older generation, not the younger generation of royals).

  9. Anonymous :

    Agree with ribbing people a little (my take on giving people a hard time). When I had my final interview for my (current) dream job as General Counsel, my last interview was with the CEO (obviously, the decision-maker). He’s an incredibly smart and accomplished guy. The very first thing I said to him was that I understood he’d spent some time in X state (where I’m from, which was obvious from my resume, as I’d spent the first 10 years of my career there). As I expected he would, he said, yes, I went to Y University (major school in the state). I responded, well, I’ll try not to hold that against you, since I went to Z (major rival) school. He burst out laughing, and it set the tone for the interview, and I got the job. I later learned that not many people around here joke around with him — I think most people are pretty intimidated by him. I still kid him about things, and we have a great, really easy-going relationship.

    • Now that’s the kind of ribbing that would work. Since his school was a major one, you aren’t really going to offend him. This would not work if he had gone to a second-tier school.

  10. From my perspective, this is a dangerous game. You do not know the person well enough to know how they will react to your playful ribbing or lighthearted conversation. To be so presumptuous as to believe that they would somehow appreciate your “normal” conversation can cost you. I know that many of you are emotionally attuned enough to realize when your overtures are unwanted, but why even gamble? I am not saying you should be mute, but I think that the short time that you have with this individual should be spent displaying your expertise, not joshing him/her about his/her favorite sport team.

    There is also a cultural aspect to “the game”. I feel that the writer assumes that this VIP will be American, as Americans tend to be more casual and informal in their social interactions, regardless of rank. This type of interaction will not fly in many other cultures. In fact, it would be considered quite rude and forward to do as this column advises.

    Something to consider before you go running up to a VIP

  11. Great advice on meeting VIPs (and really, all Ps!), I especially agree with the advice to act natural and sincere. Most people, especially those in power, can see right through fake or forced conversation, compliments and small talk.

    The author had a few grammatical errors in the piece though (eg. they’re/their issues) which if they had been caught would have upped her credibility. Overall good article on networking and personal skills in the workplace in general!

  12. To deny changes would be to deny realities. I’m using the plural on purpose

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