Nowadays, I’m the guy who reviews the résumés—but it wasn’t always like that. I used to be in your shoes, wondering how much of my experience really mattered when compared to the degree I earned. It’s a good question, and one that has plagued mankind since the dawn of business. Academics are nice, but how much do they help you in the real world? To me, this is the difference between book smarts and street smarts.
Students often ask me about their résumés. They want to know how to format them and dress them up so that their accomplishments pop on the page. They ask me whether internships and volunteerism will actually help them to secure the job and the paycheck that they want. I tell them the following story.
When I was about eighteen, my heart swelled with the desire to give back to the community. I wanted to change the world. I’ve always had a talent for languages, so I signed up with Amnesty International and soon became a translator for the Human Rights Committee. In the three years I worked for Amnesty International, I flew around Eastern Europe until the very end of my journey.
I think any one of us may look back on our youth and wonder if we wasted our time giving away free hours when we could have been building our sandcastles and empires. When I was building my résumé after the tour, I looked back on my years with Amnesty and decided that these were in fact important years that showcased my ability to speak languages and become an effective leader. Even if it didn’t help me in the long run, I had still been true to myself and followed a path I felt I needed to be on. I added Amnesty International to my résumé and never looked back.
Fast-forward to my early thirties, when I was working with Jamie. Remember, this is a woman who never once looked at my résumé. I walked through her door and she could smell the street smarts on me. My résumé could have been a tabloid for all she cared; she never gave it much thought. I was trying to win a very big project with a chairman of a big corporation in New York. He was impressed with what Jamie had to say about me. Other references sent him glowing remarks, which was good for me, but wasn’t quite securing the deal. He still wanted to meet with me. He still wanted to go over my résumé to see if I was the right man for the job.
We sat down at a restaurant for a meal while he reviewed my résumé. I can still hear him asking, “Oh, you worked for Amnesty International?” It brought an upswing to his voice and introduced a turn in our otherwise at conversation.
By this time, it had been at least ten years since my volunteer duties with Amnesty. “Yes, but a long, long time ago,” I answered slowly, wondering where this could be going.
“That’s interesting. I’m on the board.”
Of course, I was surprised. Here he was picking up on a minute detail of my résumé that was leading us into an engaging conversation. Emotional intelligence is the stuff that will allow a listener to follow someone down an unknown rabbit hole. His next question was with whom I remembered working. I named a few people, but ultimately came upon the name of Scott Long, a Harvard graduate with a specialty in human rights.
“Oh, you know Scott Long?” There was clear excitement in his voice. I could tell that he respected Scott a lot. I couldn’t blame him; I thought well of him too. “So, if I call Scott up right now, will he remember you?”
That was the button to push. I guess it was really up to chance then. If Scott did remember me, I could only hope he had more than simple things to say about me. The chairman was really putting me on the spot, but I decided to push forward. “Why don’t you give Scott a call? Let’s find out what he says about me,” I replied.
Sure enough, he got Scott on his cell. I could only see the CEO and Amnesty board member’s face. He wasn’t very expressive but he nodded along. I sat in my chair, a bit squeamish, wondering if I should be worried. It was an odd turn in our conversation. I have to say that in all of my years of keeping Amnesty on my résumé, this had never happened before.
I had no idea if Scott would remember me or have positive things to say about me, but he did. He was actually excited to hear that I was sitting in front of this chairman and CEO and that I was in a position to make these kinds of deals. The chairman hung up the phone, and the interview was over at that point. We sat, ate, and let the conversation move on to other things. The man hired me, and our relationship only grew from that time onward.
In the end, it was important for me to have that experience with Amnesty because even though it didn’t reflect on my current professional abilities, it set me up with a network I never knew I would need again. Street smarts will show that in order to establish a relationship, you often have to follow the lead of the other person.
Be friendly, trust your gut, and put those electives on your résumé. Show that you know people who aren’t just in your business field. It will go a long way.
This business isn’t for everyone. There is a science to getting someone to like you. Some people are just naturally likeable, while others are not. If you’re not one of those people who is easily liked, who can work their way around the room and come out the other side having shaken hands and made friends, there is still hope for you. I won’t say the business world isn’t for you. I still believe that you can fake it until you make it. Just remember my three As and three Cs.
In my story above, I could have become outwardly nervous when the chairman and CEO decided to ask me about a portion of my résumé I hadn’t talked about in years. I could have showed him how flustered it made me and even asked him not to call Scott Long. After all, I knew that the other people who had given me recommendations were going to say glowing things about me. I had no idea what Scott would say; he was a wild card. But you know what? I stayed calm. I kept my cool. I was collected as the chairman and CEO made the call. Keeping my composure served to reinforce the things he’d already noticed about me: that I was articulate and knowledgeable about the deal I was proposing and that I was approachable and authentic too. I wasn’t giving up on making my deal, and I was going to make sure that the chairman and CEO knew that.
I talk a lot about being aggressive. I think it’s one of my favorite words in business. To be relentless means that there is no obstacle or climate that can keep you from focusing on your goal. You will see the goal through a haze and through an obstruction in your path. I do feel that at this point, however, I need to make sure that when I say “aggressive,” you’re not thinking pigheaded and rude. I’ll tell you about a job applicant who mixed up those concepts, but first, let me digress for a moment to introduce a belief of mine that will be important to the story.
As a leader in my field, I must admit that I wouldn’t be able to get much done in my day without my assistant. She often knows more about what is going on in the company than I do. By this, I mean that she is juggling my schedule and speaking to my legal team as well as the many consultants who filter in and out of my office. She manages so many things for me that often, I just sign off on daily tasks because I trust her so implicitly.
If she comes to me and says, “Ben, you should talk to this person,” then I will stop what I am doing and get on the phone. On the other hand, if she approaches me and says, “I just need to let you know that this other person has been calling you,” I know there is no urgency, that she is informing me just to keep me abreast of the situation. We have developed a language, and she knows what needs to get done at the end of the day. Many things don’t even come to my attention.
In order for her to do her job, she has to know about the relationships I’m building and the work I am doing. She has to be my partner in crime, and oftentimes, my second brain. Nothing gets to me unless it goes through her first, and because I know that about my relationship with her, I know that other C-level executives are doing the same thing.
For this reason, when I reach out to important C-level executives, it is crucial that I get acquainted with their assistants. I know you may think this is a strategy you only see in the movies, but one of the true ways to an executive is through his or her assistant. Sometimes you won’t even get the chance to speak to the executive. You will be working through his or her assistant.
Experience tells me that assistants are a crucial factor in running successful companies. Befriending them will help get you in touch with their legal teams as well as any other department you need to touch base with in order to get your job done. Nobody wants to admit that the assistants are often the ones running the companies, but if you keep this bit of information in the back of your mind, you will know how to get what you want when you are managing an account.
However, it’s not just assistants that will help you hunt the “big dog”—that major executive. Think broadly about what I am telling you. Think about the people who are close in business to the person you are trying to work with. They can be the concierge at the hotel who has the ear of the manager or even the staff person who knows how the airline really does booking. What I am hoping you will see is that you don’t always have to go for the top-tier person. Trying to get that individual’s attention can be exhausting. Find out where that executive gets his or her information from, and that’s the person you want on your team. It works every single time.
Being introduced by a person of trust establishes credibility in ways that a cold-contact greeting cannot. That’s how you get into a room, but when you are given an opportunity to meet with the executive, practice skills of emotional intelligence, not emotional blackmail. Here is an example of the difference between the two.
I was once interviewing a gentleman from Qwest Communications. I really liked him because he was articulate and smart. He also came with great connections and recommendations, so I believed he could be part of my team. However, toward the end of the interview, he started to get a little aggressive. We all know I like this word and respond well to anyone who shows energy, so I heard him out.
“Listen,” he prodded, “you should really hire me.” He then proceeded to lay out the three other offers that companies had made him. “If you don’t hire me today, I’ll have to move on to these three other offers, you understand.”
I understood, but I also wasn’t ready to make a move and hire someone—even someone I liked—without first talking to my team. I needed to talk to my CEO and HR at the least. So I told him we would have to wait, and I would get back to him about the job.
As we wrapped up the meeting, I found myself retracting from our conversation. Whatever rapport he had established with me quickly diminished as he fought for a job ff er right there on the spot. I ushered him out of my office, trying to trace back to the moment that really turned me off. It was the way he became emotionally manipulative once he discovered that I liked him.
No executive likes to be pushed around, and that’s exactly how I felt. The meeting had ended coldly because of his pushiness. It’s interesting, though, because he was aware enough to read the situation and know that I was responding favorably to his résumé. Whatever signals I was sending him relayed the truth that I was an employer who was impressed with what he could bring to my team. I had even begun to imagine the impact he could have in our department. Yet he didn’t give me the chance to make him an offer. He jumped the gun, and when I nally got him out of my office, I decided I wouldn’t be calling him back. Although he had the skills that I needed, I’d lost faith in him the moment he gave me an ultimatum.
Thee truth is he was following the road map I lay for myself when encountering new deals:
- Establish a relationship.
- Use emotional intelligence.
I didn’t like that he used what he knew about the meeting to try to pin me in a corner. As I thought about it, I realized his approach to step 2 was really to use emotional blackmail, not emotional intelligence. I moved on, and he lost a great job opportunity.
Fast-forward a few days. I was in London for meetings. Travel days are usually very important days for me because I am using all of my time and energy to get to know both the executive I will be working with and his or her team. My assistant, who doesn’t accompany me on these trips, doesn’t bring trivial things to my attention on travel days unless they are very important.
I was leaving a meeting in London accompanied by my CEO Jamie when I received one of those calls from my assistant. Even through the phone, I could hear that she was particularly upset. This was so unlike her that I turned to the group and asked if they had a private room I could step into. Once alone, I hunched over the phone, wondering what could possibly have gotten my champion of an assistant to call me in such an unraveled state.
“Ben, I have this gentleman on the line, and he’s threatening me.”
My mind drew a blank. Who on earth would have the wherewithal to threaten my assistant? “Who are you talking about?” I asked.
“The guy from the interview a few days ago,” she said, jogging my memory. “He’s been calling, and now he really wants to speak to you. He’s threatening this and that, he won’t wait until you are back on Friday, and he’s demanding to speak to Jamie.” Her voice jolted, and I could tell she was about to break.
The hairs on my neck were standing on end. Who was this guy, and why did he think he could harass anyone he was seeking a job with? I was angry, but I soon realized that we could deal with the situation very easily. My first move was to soothe my assistant.
“Listen,” I said, and I waited until her breathing had calmed because I wanted her to grasp the full weight of my words. “Don’t let anyone make you feel like you are beneath them. You still run an organization for me.”
I could hear her breaths coming in a slower, more natural rhythm and imagined the tears receding from her eyes. I meant it. She really was an asset to the entire company, not just me. I wanted to discipline the guy for making her feel like that. The thought ran through my head to hire him only to send him on some impossible goose chase and then fire him. Yet there were so many factors involved. I didn’t want to do anything that could get us sued, so I told her to get HR to send him a rejection letter immediately. I didn’t care if it was hand-delivered the same day. I just wanted to have in writing that we were not interested in hiring him, and to do that in a way that was calm and professional.
Furthermore, I told my assistant that as soon as she received delivery confirmation for that letter, she had my permission to call him up and put him in his place. I wanted her to say whatever she needed to, within reason. She went back to him and let him know that he’d failed his interview and that he’d messed it up long before she ever got involved; by harassing her, he was in fact harassing her boss who was, in her words, the “golden boy” of the company.
This guy did all that he could to burn bridges. He could have won us over with his approach or with his personality, with his personal As and Cs, but he bungled it every step of the way. His ego was so big that he couldn’t be mindful of what was going on in the room around him.
When students ask me about the contributing factors in making deals, I always think about emotional intelligence, but what I really mean when I say that is you have to have balance. You have to look at your arsenal of weapons—including everything you learned as a kid in school and the experience you picked up in volunteer hours—and be savvy about which of those cards you play when you are encountering new people and new situations. Be honest, authentic, and articulate, because emotional intelligence means harnessing the discerning qualities that give you empathy when analyzing situations and relationships.
Some would call this just having a sense of social awareness. That man had the skill, the network, and the experience, but he didn’t have the brains to maintain relationships.
When you were a kid, you may have been taught how to be polite when around company and to close the door gently after you exited a room. I can hear mothers across America saying, “Shut the door—don’t slam it.” You may have been taught how to be a good loser: “Don’t pout and throw a tantrum,” “Leave the field and shake your opponent’s hand,” or “Good game, good game.” It’s hard to believe that those lessons we learned as kids are often mistaken as lessons that only belong in our youth. I’m here to say that those rules we learned as eight- and nine-year-olds are still applicable in our lives today, especially in the business world.
The offices of professionals can seem more like a sports field than an office space. We are so competitive that we often forget that the people we are dealing with today could very well be our teammates tomorrow. We forget to be polite and to leave a position with grace, having maintained relationships instead of burning bridges.
Not many years ago, the telecom world suffered a huge hit. The economy was in a recession, and there were few businesses that were doing very well. I watched the market get cut down in size. Telecom businesses were falling by the wayside one by one, and those that weren’t going under were laying off employees in droves.
I sat on a few accounts with my CEO, Jamie. We were accustomed to swooping into places that needed our products and working closely with teams of customers, but their offices started to feel empty after a while. People were being let go, and we found ourselves working with smaller and smaller teams. Only the best employees were hanging on. We had to make sure that there was a spirit of camaraderie in the teams we assembled. Our goal, every time we got to a new sales floor, was to build relationships and make sure the competition that once existed between these groups was kept at bay.
Don’t get me wrong, these were all salespeople who at one time or another had been my competitors as well, but Jamie and I found ourselves leading groups successfully because we had a secret.
Prior to the economic crash, Jamie and I had a system. Whenever we signed a deal with a new company, we made sure to work with more than just the executive to whom we’d originally been introduced. Yes, the executive was our champion and we needed that person to be in our corner, but we were also aware of the fact that it takes an entire team to move the ball forward. What would happen to our account if our champion was red or moved to a competitor? If the champion lost his or her position, we would have no connection to the company. The progress we made on the account would have to be restarted, and that’s not an easy job.
Going forward with contracts, both Jamie and I decided to build relationships with the entire team. This was very casual. It meant that when we traveled, we didn’t get out of the meetings and hibernate in our hotel rooms. Rather than having personal time, we spent those hours with the team. We invited them out for a drink or dinner. We spent hours getting to know them or just blowing off steam at the end of the day. Building those relationships allowed us to make friends in places we later relied on when the crash occurred. While everyone else in the industry had built walls around their teams, we’d made enough friends to keep our business alive as the economy sank to its knees.
This is a simple illustration of the balance that must be kept. Balancing relationships is just as important as making the deal. Where would Jamie and I have been if we didn’t treat people with respect, and even befriend competitors we were working with? We would have lost deals and missed the opportunity to create the kinds of sales teams that eventually saved our business. To me, balance means being mindful of your strengths, your weaknesses, and the things you can’t control. You can’t control the economy, or whether the person with whom you established your contract will get red or quit. What you can do is invest in people. After all, it is relationships that will last, even after a business has gone bankrupt.
So, at the end of your workday, remember to cultivate those work relationships, even if it means stretching across the aisle. Yes, there is power in competition, but there is longevity in collaboration.