A few years ago, I received a request from John Chambers, executive chairman of the board and former CEO of Cisco Systems. He and his team wanted to invite a top-tier comedian to entertain employees at Cisco's 25th anniversary event, and Jerry Seinfeld was their top pick.
While Cisco is a well-known and well-established company, it still took me, along with key members of the executive team, 10 weeks to negotiate the terms of the appearance in a way that satisfied both Cisco and Jerry. In the end, everyone was thrilled, including the lucky employees.
In the green room at the event, Jerry asked me whether I could arrange a meeting between him and Steve Jobs so he could take a tour of Apple. Having built a good rapport with Steve during my years at Apple, I made the request. Steve asked me to give Jerry his private number, and, once again, both parties were delighted.
How do I manage to connect with such influential people?
Over the course of my career, I've learned that there are many benefits to spending time with powerful, successful people. By building a reputation as a super-connector, I've gained access to elite luminaries, interesting projects, and "velvet rope" events. Being courageous enough to approach and strike up a discussion with John Sculley, former CEO of Apple, when few others did even helped me get my MBA.
I'll admit -- I might be in a unique situation, thanks to my years working at the convergence of entertainment and technology. But the truth is that the benefits of connecting with influential people can work for anyone, no matter where you are in your career.
Here are three ways to forge these valuable relationships with power players:
1. Give to get. The keys to leveraging influential relationships are to first network in order to create them and then to find ways to add value for them, nurturing and engaging them over time in a natural, authentic way.
Those A-list, velvet rope events I'm regularly invited to now? These days, I use those to continue to connect with more people and expand my network. When you're at any event, don't wait to be approached. Be brave, and make the first move. After the connection is made, don't let it fizzle and die that day; follow up swiftly.
Find strategic ways to align with key individuals. If you see an article that's relevant to someone, send it over. Make sure that person knows about an event he or she might enjoy, or create a powerful introduction that could help move him or her forward. You create trust when you look for ways to make people's lives easier or their efforts more effective and impactful.
2. Don't be afraid to ask. As you come to know these influencers and are viewed as a peer, they'll be more inclined to refer you to opportunities that can lead to more exposure and more business. If, at some point, you're looking to get into a specific situation, for example, and an influential connection you know could put in a good word on your behalf, don't be afraid to ask.
Remember, at this point, you should have been providing value along the way, so your connection will be more inclined to help you. One of the best ways to make sure people know how to help you is to be clear about your company. Communicate what you do and where you stand so influencers will be more willing to risk their own social capital to help you.
3. See and be seen. As you develop as a thought leader in your field and become a peer to more influential individuals, you will likely get invited to more exclusive events. If you hear of such an event, see whether you know anyone who's involved, and ask whether he or she can get you invited as well.
Does asking for favors make you feel uncomfortable? Don't let it. Even very powerful people are more willing to help than you may realize, and when you're direct about what you want and why, they're even more likely to do so.
Preparing for these exclusive industry events is vital. People generally develop a first -- and lasting -- impression of you in less than a second. If you've come prepared to discuss timely, relevant topics, you'll feel far more confident.
In my early days, I'd often get nudged to go to a certain networking event where I'd meet someone who was key to the next step in my journey, or someone would introduce me to another person who would play a key role. Keep paying attention to signs that crop up in your path, and follow them to the next fork in the road. When you set your intentions clearly and things show up serendipitously, follow the signs and keep saying yes.