How to make friends in high places: A 5-Step Program to Boost Your Career

In business – especially in Asia – that relationships are everything is so true that it’s a cliché. If you want to grow your network to include the most important people in your industry, you must pique their interest and earn their trust. In this week’s piece, Mark Ford shows you how to develop a relationship with VIPs… one complimentary note at a time.

If you could be on a first-name basis with anyone in your trade or industry, who would it be? Mark Ford

Whose power—or position—would you most like to gain access to?

Who, among all the people you know, could have the most positive impact on your future?

Imagine having an address book full of people like this—people you could turn to for help or advice whenever you needed it.

You can build such a network. It’ll take some time and effort, but it can be done. And it’ll be valuable…

You can’t create a VIP (Very Important Person) contact list by simply contacting the “right” people and asking to be their friend. You have to first win their interest. Then you must earn their trust.

You can win their interest by using a technique I’ve recommended before: Write a short and sincere letter to the target individual, complimenting him or her on a specific thing he or she did that you honestly admire.

For example, if someone in your industry just came out with a great product or clever marketing campaign, write him or her a simple letter saying how much you like it. A handwritten note will almost always be read. And it’ll be appreciated, as well… if it doesn’t feel false. So don’t overdo your praise, and be specific. And don’t ask for anything in return.

A publisher whose career has been meteoric told me she reads the trade journals. And when she sees a story bylined by a powerful person—whom she’d like to have in her network—she writes a personal note complimenting him or her on the article.

“It’s amazing how often you’ll get a reply,” she notes. “And how open they are to starting a correspondence.”

You can start today.

Make a list of all the people who could give your career a real boost. Your list could include people who run successful businesses similar to yours. It could also include people in unrelated fields who have qualities or skills you’d like to have.

Start with the person at the top of your list and work downward, looking for a reason to write a complimentary note. Or search for their publications on the Internet. If you put in a bit of time, you’ll find reasons.

Make a commitment—perhaps a letter per month or per week—and stick to it. Ten names aren’t enough. You’re looking for 100 and hoping half of them will say thank you.

The thank you notes are what you’re looking for. But they’re just the first step.

You’ve gained their interest. Now it’s time to earn their trust.

This will take longer—months or years. Earning their trust means showing them you’re not just a fan, but someone who can add value to their lives and careers.

You can do that by sending the occasional clipping on a subject of mutual interest. Clippings have a greater impact than links.

The next step, if this first step seems to be working (i.e., you get thank you notes), is to ask for advice. You might ask the contact’s opinion on a certain matter, suggest a possible joint venture, or request a personal interview. You can, for example, say something like this:

“I know you’re very busy—but if you ever have a spare half-hour, I’d love the chance to get some advice from you on my own business.”

If you get an answer, don’t try to push the relationship faster than your target person wants. (This, of course, is good advice for all relationship building.)

If he or she seems neutral or slightly negative, back off. Move on to other people. Remember, you’re looking for genuine relationships, not trying to be an annoying pest.

At some point in this process, you’ll realize you have a real relationship. You’ll be communicating on a first-name basis, and there will be “good will” in the content of your communications. Your target may even reach out to you… to ask a question, recommend a contact, or suggest something you might do together.

That’s what you’re looking for—a mutually respectful relationship. Then—and only then –you might be able to suggest doing business together.

To review:

  1. Gain interest first, earn trust later.
  1. Always be specific and sincere in your praise.
  1. Don’t expect to receive an answer to every note you write.
  1. Ask questions. Be grateful for answers.
  1. Suggest business only when your target person is ready.

If you commit yourself to this program, it will make a huge difference in your career.

I have to stop here and admit something. I don’t do this myself. Well, I do it in bits and pieces every so often, but I’ve never committed to doing it the way I’m recommending here.

Why? Because I am vain, deluded, and pigheaded. I want to believe that when it comes to business issues, no one is smarter than I am. And I want to achieve my business goals without help from others.

This is a character defect—a serious one—that is related to my inability to ask for directions when I’m lost. But I can see now, looking back in my career, that this defect held me back in many ways.

It’s funny. In other areas of my life—writing and martial arts for example—I was humble enough to seek out expertise and ask for help. This was enormously helpful. But in business I was stubborn. And yet, when I think about the important things I know, I realize they were all taught to me by someone—a boss, a mentor, a colleague.

So do as I say. Not as I have done. Commit to this little program and I am quite sure it will give you big and positive results that will compound over time.