As a C-suite executive, you know the importance of connections. And there comes a time when you may need to connect or reconnect on behalf of your company, be it in the pre-IPO phase or as a solid industry leader. I’m not talking about traditional networking functions where many people shove their cards in your face before scurrying off to find the next victim. No, I’m talking about intimate dinners or events with an exclusive guest list and nowhere to hide; it might be an executive-only thought leadership round table, a fundraiser, or a dinner with journalists. For those times when you find yourself with peers or allies, but you aren’t already connected, it can be a bit nerve-wracking because it may have been a while since you were in a room you didn’t command. Lean into these five tips for executive networking for the C-suite.
Be The Conversation Starter
Whether you’re a master at networking or trying to squash your introversion, this is a fun and easy way to put yourself and others at ease: wearing something notable and reflecting your personality. You’ll stand out, and it puts people at ease and makes it easier to approach you. For men, this could be a tie or colorful socks. It could be a pin on your lapel or a handkerchief that takes your attire to the next level. For women, this could be a colorful scarf, a pin, or even a bright-colored outfit (it helps to stand out in photos when standing next to a bunch of men in dark suits). Having an immediately obvious conversation starter makes it easier for people to approach you, which might be a welcome break from your own room rotation.
Note to the wise: Comment on the item rather than their looks when you see someone using this tactic. “That’s a fantastic scarf-my wife would appreciate that; where did you get it?” is a great way to start the conversation, charming and disarming.
Plan Your Conversation
In advance of the event, read a book or several articles immediately of interest to others at the event; bonus points if it’s mutually relevant. But remember your strategy, what you are doing there – what will your target connections value, and what would make for a memorable conversation. This isn’t the time for conversations around politics or religion.
A quick Google search on the people or organizations you want to meet is also helpful. “I saw you in that Forbes article” is a great starter to any executive networking conversation.
Introduce Yourself to Organizers
When hosting professional networking events, I always appreciated people who told me it was their first time or asked me if I was the organizer. It gave me a moment to stop and have a conversation with someone, and I was always able to make a mutually beneficial introduction; after all, I knew almost everyone. Make this work for you as well – many people will forget to connect with the organizer because that’s not who they came to connect with, but you can rest assured, they’re the most connected to the people IN the room. Another small and easy way to stand out and lubricate introductions is to email the organizer in advance asking a question that puts the organizer in the “connected expert position;” something like “What’s the recommended attire?” is easy to ask and answer for the organizer, and yet allows you to stand out in advance.
Introduce Yourself As a Person, Not a Company
While this sounds like “networking 101” because C-suite execs are used to being introduced or used to commanding the room, many miss this essential step. When introducing yourself, start by introducing yourself with your first and last name, and do it every time someone joins the conversation so others hear your name repeatedly. When you introduce yourself, say your first and last name, wait a beat, then say your company name. Many of us rush through our introductions, and we don’t give others a chance to hear or understand, which puts them in an awkward position. And when introducing others, remember to introduce them before anyone else, including the CEO. Clients should always feel embraced and cherished, which is an easy way to do so.
An easy way to connect with someone is by offering to send them something in the mail. Most people can’t resist getting something in the mail. It could be a sample of your latest, buzzworthy product, a book you recently read, or that excellent protein powder that you swear boosts your energy all day. Whatever it is, make it personal and relevant.
While we’re at it – keep your business cards in your pocket until you’ve established a mutual connection and reason to get in touch in the future; better yet, request a business card. Maybe you don’t have a business card; connect on LinkedIn or send an email before you leave the conversation. Steer clear of asking for someone’s phone number at an executive networking event; it’s inappropriate for a first business meeting and puts people on edge when asked in that venue.
Work the Room without Working the Room
Depending on the location, there are a couple of strategic places you can stand where you will inevitably meet people you might not have otherwise; this is executive networking that looks calm, cool and collected. The first is the bar. Almost everyone hits the bar right away, so being there earlier in the event gives you a chance to connect initially with a few people or at the very least, get a sense of who is at the dinner and who might wish to approach. It gives you that 3-second opportunity to review the situation before approaching.
Another location is kitty-corner from the door. If you stand there all evening, you will have the chance to see almost everyone who walks in – and if you’re there with a welcoming smile and willingness to strike up a conversation, people will be relieved to have someone to talk to in the immediately awkward moments of walking into a room.
Follow Up with Flair
Following up with a short, handwritten note after meeting someone is a masterclass in executive visability. The handwritten note is a lost art, so it’s incredibly memorable. But at the very least, send an email or a note on LinkedIn. You might also consider finding a recent article relevant to your conversation and passing that along as well. And don’t forget to send that item (the book, the product, etc.) too. People are always pleasantly surprised when people do as they said they would.
Executive-level visibility is high-stakes. Making the most of any in-person opportunity is good business. So when you’re networking in exclusive situations, make the most of your time, while also valuing the time of others and you’ll find executive networking more enjoyable and effective.