In my early days at USA Today, I was looking up some obscure information in the newspaper's library (this was before online) on election night when I had quite the shock.
Let me back up for a second and explain that election nights are notoriously one of the craziest times to work at a newspaper. Information is coming in fast and furious and editors are screaming at people to meet deadlines and the bad pizza they ordered is starting to ferment in your gut.
So, it was sort of a lull before the next skirmish, and I and another co-worker went down to the library to "look something up" when what we were really doing was escaping the insanity of the newsroom to just sort of chill.
We were standing around gabbing about nothing in the library when I felt someone come up beside me. "How's it going?" I heard someone say.
I looked over my shoulder to come face-to-face with Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, a man I had only met through his picture in the newspaper. I remember mumbling something like, "Just fine. Sir. Fine." And then I bolted for the door, my co-worker hot on my heels.
I was young, and now realize what a missed opportunity that was for me. Read this story I did for Gannett/USAToday and you'll realize what you should do when you have a chance to talk to a mover and shaker....
Many workers don't come into contact with their chief executive very often, but they should be prepared — whether it's a chance meeting in an elevator or a planned presentation.
So if you don't want to be judged harshly — and perhaps hurt your career — be ready to handle the presence of an influential leader whether it's the boss, a customer or a client, says Schlimm, principal of Jenoir Management Consultants.Management expert Dirk Schlimm says workers must not try to wing it or leave anything to chance when meeting powerful people. Those movers and shakers immediately assess then judge anyone who crosses their path.
"You've got to be prepared," Schlimm says. "You've got to be ready to provide a crisp answer about what you do and what you're working on."
Also be ready to cite ways a company can be better since many top bosses will ask rank-and-file workers what they think. Schlimm says it's a good idea to practice this answer because you don't want to say anything that would criticize your boss — and get you in a lot of trouble.
Dealing with a powerful person takes some finesse. The key is making sure you remain true to yourself but use the interaction with decision-makers to help your career. After decades of dealing with powerful leaders, Schlimm offers several insights in his new book, Influencing Powerful People (McGraw Hill, $28). Among his lessons:
• Look the part. If you know you're going to meet key leaders, follow the company's dress code.
"It's amazing how quickly powerful people will size you up when they see you and come to a decision in their mind about you," he says. "It's just practical to make sure you're dressed appropriately."
• Watch out for confined spaces. While you may think you've landed the career lottery when asked to join a powerful person on a private jet, it could be a disaster in the making.
You'll be judged and evaluated on everything, including the book you choose to read, Schlimm says.
"If you read a leisure book, the powerful person may think you have too much free time on your hands and aren't busy enough," he says. "Honestly, it may be best to take the seat the farthest away from this person because they're going to be all business, all the time."
• Relax, but not too much. Powerful people like to interact with others during activities such as golf, tennis or a company party. But this can be a land mine of problems if you don't watch your behavior.
Being too competitive or cheating at a game can make a powerful person see you in a negative light and decide that you're not a good fit for a company.
Also, don't forget that many powerful people rely on the perceptions of spouses, so be on your best behavior around husbands and wives as well.
"It can be very difficult for a CEO to get unbiased feedback, so they'll rely on the spouse to give an intuitive, unvarnished view of someone," Schlimm says.
• Appreciate the power. Top leaders come to trust those they believe "get it," Schlimm says.
That means that you've got to let the powerful person know that you understand and appreciate what they do and are trying to accomplish.
This message should be delivered in a way the person best appreciates. Some will want it in writing; others will want you to tell them directly, he says.
• Don't delay bad news. Powerful people don't become powerful by being the last to know something.
If you've got unhappy developments to explain, do so immediately. Even if you don't have all the details, let the person know right away and say you're working on getting specifics.
"Powerful people love the business. It's almost their whole life. So, don't worry about disturbing them," Schlimm says. "Most of them are insomniacs anyway, so you probably won't bother them even in the middle of the night."
• Take on menial tasks. If you want to build trust with a powerful person, proving yourself adept and thorough at small jobs can help build that bridge.
Schlimm suggests offering to take minutes in a meeting of important people you might not otherwise get to attend.
"You want to show that you do even the small things really well, that you appreciate getting a chance to do it and you took it seriously," he says. "What you're saying is that you knew it was important to the powerful person, so it was important to you."
• Keep your independence. Getting sucked into the world of power — then being corrupted by it — was a key lesson in movies such as Wall Street.
But the same thing can happen in real life, so Schlimm advises having a trusted mentor who can help you see when you're crossing the line, following a powerful person to a place you may not want to go.
What other tips can you offer?