The vast majority of professionals receive a great deal of education and training, to prepare them for their careers. They study the intellectual underpinnings of their discipline, and, in almost all cases, they get to practice their learnings in real life, supervised settings. What they get very little of, is how to get hired. And this vacuum is more often, than not, filled by angst, anxiety and self-doubt. Some of this is to be expected, but a whole lot of it is needless and self-destructive.
For the past forty years, in institutional settings, and in individual practice as a clinician and consultant, I’ve been successfully selling myself to a wide variety of buyers: business leaders, entrepreneurs, law enforcement professionals, public sector decision-makers, entertainers, athletes, academics, medical and healthcare practitioners. It has not been a smooth path, and occasionally, after a few awful rejections, I have fantasized about dismissing all my head stuff, and stocking shelves at a supermarket.
Here’s what I learned: In terms of the accoutrements of the process, you don’t need to mimic the dress of your prospect – you do need to not look like you purchased your outfit from Walmart or the Dollar Store. Language is even more important than dress. You need to get as close as possible to the dialect of television newscaster English. Pronounced regional accents are cute in your personal network, but get in the way of selling yourself.
Depending on which studies you read, you’ll have 90 – 120 seconds to capture a prospects initial attention (my experience leans toward 90). Two things are critical: How you walk into the room, and how you shake hands. If you walk into the room like you’re trying to evade a sniper’s bullet, you’re building a hill you’ll need to climb for the rest of the interaction. Head up, shoulders back, eyes fixed on the prospect. How you shake hands is one of the most important facets of the interaction. Most professionals I’ve trained have zero skills in hand-shaking. It looks like they’re trying to sell you a dead fish, or get you to take some roadkill off their hands. Here’s the pro forma: You extend your hand first; as soon as its met, you tighten your grip so that its firm (not crushing – you’re not hand wrestling); take the lead and shake hands for five seconds. If you haven’t been in business, you’re going to have to practice a lot.
As the recession gets worse, establishing interpersonal credibility becomes paramount. And the biggest mistake professionals make is to try and curry favor with the prospect by being “nice,” agreeable, even obsequious. In a tight economy, selling yourself, involves two, almost, counterintuitive strategies: First, you need to take risks; and second, you need to understand who, exactly, you’re selling to.
Here’s an example, word for word, of risk-taking – I’m at lunch with a prospect, and after the usual intellectual dog-sniffing, here’s what transpired:
Me: Why did you want to meet with me?
Prospect: I’m having some problems at the senior management level and from what I hear, I thought you could help me out.
Me: What exactly’s the problem?
Pros: My key manager has just ground to a halt. He goes through the motions of doing things, but he’s actually getting nothing done.
Me: For how long has he not done anything?
Pros: For most of this year.
Me: I have a question for you.
Me: Who hired this fellow?
Pros: Well, my HR person and another manager did some interviews, and recommended that I meet with him.
Me: So, you actually offered him the job.
Me: I have another question for you. Do you want to find out why you chose someone who would disappoint you and cause you problems?
Pros: Are you saying that I’m the problem?
Me: You’re certainly part of it.
Pros: Let me think about what you’re saying, and I’ll get back to you.
He was pissed, and his face was on fire. Two weeks later, he called me and engaged me to work with him and the C-Suite group.
One last point. Always keep in mind who the client is. The organization/company is never the client. Whoever decides to bring you in, and agrees to pay your fees, is the client. I learned a long time ago, that all professional services ultimately center around a very personal relationship. If I don’t help the key decision maker who hired me, deal more effectively with their personal challenges, the engagement will be short-lived and unproductive for both of us. Years ago, I worked with an international conglomerate that employed half a million people, in 57 countries. Someone asked me how I could deal with all those people in all those countries – my answer was simple – I don’t. My client, at the top of the food chain, does. He teaches his direct reports what I taught him, and they do likewise. I’ve altered that old military saw – “Good stuff rolls downhill “ and its served me well.
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