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I’ve recently written a couple of articles focusing on the dynamics of initial meetings. They have drawn a pile of emails – mostly war stories about lost potential and illusions that never became real. Thanks to all of you who took the time to write. A writer’s most gratifying experience is always to receive responses to what has been written. And thanks for the suggestions that have become the central ideas of this piece.
Management of first meetings is an art that takes considerable focus and discipline. This is particularly true because most people have a relatively unstructured and fairly casual approach to meeting someone for the first time. My experience has been that this casualness arises out of a casual approach to life. On more than one occasion I have, in the middle of the networking event, had the feeling that I was witnessing anything from ‘the uninformed showing the unwilling how to do the unnecessary’ to the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
As someone who is continually fascinated by the incredible diversity of a human experience, I tend to approach each new meeting as a journey into that the diversity. I am stunned to find that most of the people that I meet are simply going through the motions – as if they were sleepwalking through their own life. And, as the old saw goes, you cannot wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.
Over the years I have developed particular habits that have proven very useful in managing first meetings. Here are some of my thoughts in the area:
Come with an agenda: I am amazed at how many people will rave about a book that suggests that they should live a purpose driven life and then behave as the prescription does not relate to them and the conduct of their own life. I often can see no purpose at all in their actions or conduct.
Whenever I meet someone for the first time my curiosity drives me to seek answers to some very basic questions. Who is this person? What has been their life experience? What can I learn from them? What common grounds can we find for building a sustainable relationship?
Well anyway, you get the idea. Meeting someone who lacks purpose is like shaking hands with a jellyfish. Not only is the experience going to be formless but you will probably get stung in the process. Showing up with an agenda will actually attract those others who have also come with an interest in substance. Purposeful people are generally a magnet for people pursuing a purpose.
Follow-up with purpose: If I have seen any potential at all as a result of a first meeting I reflexively generate an e-mail within 24 hours. I outline those areas where I feel I can be of service to the other person. I request that they do the same and that, after I had had a chance to review their suggestions and they mine, that we organize a second meeting.
Over the years I have found that this is a wonderful tool for separating out those individuals who are capable of substantive relationships from those who are addicted to lightweight chatter. Members of the first group generally take my e-mail as a compliment and a challenge. I’ve spent the time thinking through the possibilities for our relationship and have tried to suggest the beginnings of a foundation for ongoing mutual benefit. These people, after they get over the shock of being treated with consideration and courtesy, tend to respond by generating a list of their own. It is really only after both lists are on the table that we can come to some conclusion about whether are not it makes any sense for the both of us to put energies into building a friendship or business relationship.
People in the second category generally do not respond at all to my follow-up email. I take this is a huge blessing. The approach allows me to filter out people who lack substance and focus – and to keep from wasting any time at all interacting with them.
Agree on a task for each: Another approach that I have found very productive is to agree during the initial meeting on a task that each of the participants will follow up on. This is a wonderful filter. It quickly identifies those individuals who are professional ‘excuse merchants’. The comic relief in this strategy comes with the incredibly convoluted excuses as to why an individual has not gotten around to following up on their commitment.
A second benefit from this strategy is that it gives you, early in the relationship, a measure of the professional standards and integrity of the individual you have just met. By seeing how they honor their commitments and what they see as sufficient to honor those commitments early on, you can save yourself a lot of frustration from relying on people who are essentially unreliable.
Give them an assignment: If you are meeting with a person who is going to be subordinate to you in any ongoing relationship, an initial meeting is a very good time to give them an assignment. I always pick some task which can be completed within a relatively short period of time and with a modest amount of effort. The response gives me a gauge of their capability under like pressure. If you think about it, this is a great test. If they can’t manage to deliver under light pressure how do you expect they’re going to respond when the going gets tough?
Initial meetings are a first opportunity for gathering information on the person you have just met. When I work with mentoring clients I try to get them to see first meetings as opening a file on the person and having that person open a file on them. If you are going to avoid the grief of missed opportunities you have to pay attention – make sure that your file accumulates substantive and accurate information on the person you have just met. You also have to make sure that the information which accumulates in their file accurately represents who you are and what you are able to contribute to the relationship.
Don’t listen to the propaganda: Hubris is BS with an advanced degree. One of the characteristics of well educated individuals is that they easily lose track of reality amongst the maze of their own linguistic capabilities. My own degree, Ph.D., is often described as ‘piled higher and deeper’.
Well educated people tend to carry around a well rehearsed pile of crap. They bring it to networking meetings and offer liberal portions to anyone inattentive enough to consume it. The trick here is to pay absolutely zero attention to this ‘I am’ stuff and, instead try to find out through substantive experience who they really are.
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