Business executives are schooled on protocols and etiquette. You would be foolish not to operate from the same playbook. Knowing how to properly introduce yourself, mingle at a networking event, and mind your manners at dinner convey that you are rightfully part of the executive in crowd.
Put Your Cold Calling Tricks Aside
Short curiosity-building emails, schmoozing with the gatekeeper, and bonding over a personal interest may be the usual recommendations for prospecting. These are not the surefire approaches that will get you a meeting with a c-level exec though. A formal letter of introduction is what will create the best chance of setting up an introductory meeting.
Open With a Letter of Introduction
You may be surprised to learn that your introduction note can be 3-4 pages long. You are recommending a formal introduction meeting, so you note needs to include the objective, your proposed agenda, a suggested date and time, requested attendees, and your bio.
This letter can be a PDF that you email, but it should be created on letterhead. Copy and paste the first page with the objective and proposed agenda in your email copy. Then send it to your c-level contact, his or her assistant, and copy the person who referred you if that is relevant. Your request will get filtered out based on how much time and effort you’ve put into setting up a valuable meeting. So bypass the filter and make your note open the doors to the executive suite.
Here’s another surprise: you should assign parts of the agenda to the executive. Executives expect to be on the agenda at important meetings. Knowing what they are expected to share assures them that the meeting isn’t a pitch. Rather it’s an exchange to determine if you can identify mutual value for your respective companies. If you are requesting confidential knowledge you may even offer to establish a confidentiality disclosure agreement (CDA) before your meeting.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Networking with Execs
While a networking event may be social, remember your purpose is bigger than friendly chit-chat. Skip the hors d’oeurves table and the open bar. Eat before the event so your mind is clear and you stay on point. This advice may seem obvious, but I know sales professionals who have been fired for their conduct at business networking events (hint: it is never good form to take the business cards from the fishbowl!)
Your purpose is to meet and get to know an executive at the event. How do you seem enthusiastic to meet someone without appearing like a stalker? The easiest way is to get the event host to introduce you. Your credibility goes up with a mutual contact and the host can share a brief bio on your behalf as the reason for connecting you. If the host isn’t a mutual friend, leverage your resources, like LinkedIn, to learn if someone will be at the party who can make the introduction for you.
As you wrap up your conversation, it’s bad form to ask for a business card or offer your own. It’s not common for executives to even carry business cards. If you have an engaging conversation that begs for follow up, the right protocol is to request permission to reach out to their assistant to schedule time for a follow up conversation.
Use Grace at Dinner
Table manners are meant to make your dining companions feel comfortable. Not minding your manners is a fast way to lose respect with someone you want to impress.
One common dilemma is which water glass, napkin, or bread plate belongs to you. Here’s and easy way to remember: BMW.
B: bread plate is to your left.
M: meal is in the middle.
W: water glass is to your right.
When sitting down to dinner, take the napkin from your bread plate, fold it in a triangle, and lay it in your lap with the point facing toward you up your body. When you are finished and leaving the table, lay the napkin loosely to the left of your plate. To signal that you are done with your dinner, leave your knife and fork handles at 10 and 4 as they face on a clock. And please leave the plate stacking to the restaurant staff.
If you want a deeper dive into the etiquette training executives receive at “charm school”, I recommend Emily Post’s The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success. Another wonderful option is Judith Bowman’s How to Stand Apart @ Work: Transforming Fine to Fabulous.
How to Handle the Thank You
Email is the typical mode of follow up today, and an immediate note about the meeting and follow up steps are perfectly fine protocol. Don’t miss your chance to make the right impression though by also mailing a hand-written note. The card matters. A great choice is a 4×6 note card with your company’s logo or your personal monogram, along with a lined envelope. You are most welcome to tuck your business card inside as well.
To Gift or Not to Gift
Company policies are strict these days so know your client’s before you create an awkward situation. If anything beyond a dime store pen is acceptable, then your best choice is unique and memorable. Executives can already buy all of the toys they would want, so invest your thought and creativity over dollars.
One executive I met with had just learned his son got accepted to the college of his choice. After walking through the university’s bookstore for a gift, I realized that anything in the store could easily be purchased by the executive. So I searched online for the school’s fight song. I found a book with all of the major university’s school songs, marked the page for his son’s school, and mailed it with a personal note.
When I got a thank you call from the executive he was so grateful for the thoughtful gift and shared that he was a musician himself and loved having the sheet music that was included in the book so he could learn to play the song.
Another client, with the last name of Trout, was used to jokes and comments about his name. When I found an attractive pen with the moniker of a trout on it, I sent it with a note. The executive was so impressed with the pen, he ordered more to use as his signature gift to special friends and clients.
In both of these cases I created a personal connection and memory with each executive, which is a tough audience to stand out with. And it didn’t need to cost more than U.S. $20 to do it.
The Best Way to Connect with an Exec
An executive is comfortable around fellow leaders. So be one. Join the board of a non-profit. Support community programs. Not only can you now bond through mutual leadership roles, you also become more interesting in conversation.
Be the kind of person and executive would enjoy talking with – organized, enthusiastic but not pushy, great manners, thoughtful, and philanthropic. Live these qualities whenever you engage with c-level executives. Accepting your meeting will be a natural and expected occurrence.
Catherine Blake, president and founder of Sales Protocol, is an entrepreneur, writer, speaker and sales expert. She has done sales and marketing for companies such as IBM, GTE and International Wireless and was a professor and lecturer at University of New Hampshire’s Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics.