Updated: Jul 10, 2019
“This way mam, the penthouse is on the top floor…” said the manager as she greeted me at the foyer of the hotel where I met with His Excellency the High Commissioner of Ghana to SA, Ambassador Ayisi-Boateng. Apparently even rural girls can walk into big rooms!!!
There is a certain type of etiquette needed when you are going to meet with a high-value stakeholder or client. Its important that you maintain a good balance between being professional, but also accessible and warm as a person.
It was my first time meeting with him. By the end of the meeting I felt like I had just held an intimate conversation with an elder I had known for a long time. So I thought I’d share with you some of my tips for building relationships and rapport with high-value stakeholders. I am not an expert, but the tips below work really well for me.
Be yourself. If you are some high-class bundle of fakery, it’s difficult for anyone to take you seriously. And yes, everyone sees right through what is not real. Rather be real and imperfect (even if your voice shakes a little at the beginning), than perfect and fake. My real identity can't exclude the fact that I am a rural girl from the dusty streets of Idutywa. I am also many other things. I take that with me everywhere I go.
Know what you are going to say. Know what you came to ask for. Consider questions you might get asked. Have all supporting documents handy. By the time you walk into a high-level meeting, have everything you will need out in your hand or on the table including business cards. The last thing you want is to be rummaging through your purse nervously looking for a card while your high-level guest waits for you. They will be irritated that you are wasting their time, and you will be even more anxious.
Introduce yourself properly.
The greeting and introduction are the most important part of the first meeting. Not the ask. I know it's counterintuitive because western culture says your pitch must be under 2 minutes and you must get straight to the point in meetings. In high level processes however - because engagement is for the long-hall - you want to build rapport and trust. And you should be willing to sacrifice immediate gain in exchange for the long-term relationship.
A story is told that back in the day travellers never discussed the core business of their visit on first day of arrival when visiting an African family. Instead, they talked about family, crops, business, etc. Only on the second or third day would the real issue be discussed. I find that most Africans operate like this still today. They need to know who you are first, before they know how to engage with you. So, I always spend quite a bit of time in the introduction.
What should go into your introduction you ask?
Now ladies, this is especially important for you. Because your tendency is to nervously rattle out your name and your title in under 30 seconds and think that’s enough. It’s not. My introduction, depending on who I am dealing with, will include my personal history, where I was born, even my clan name if relevant. I’ll talk briefly about my career history; especially focussing on why I do what I do, and why it matters to me. This always helps the other person to drop their guard and start relating to me as a person.
And then I’ll talk about my current titles and recent achievements as relevant to the discussion. Women are notoriously bad at talking about their achievements because we think its boasting. But it’s not boasting if it is said in context, and if it’s the truth. The reason this is important is that it helps the person listening to decide how seriously they should take you. It’s a power move, and it’s an important one. But also, it’s an act of humility. Because essentially you are recognizing that the person you are talking to has the right to know who they are dealing with. Be ready to back it up with documents if necessary. If you do this, very few people will forget who you are!
Make a clear and crisp ask.
Now that you have properly introduced yourself, it is finally time to make your ask. An ask is when you clearly state what you came to request. Spend only a 3rd or less of the time you are speaking during your introduction articulating your ask. Leave it to your guest to ask follow up questions.
My input with the Ambassador was about 10 minutes of my introduction and about 5 minutes of listening to his feedback. He endorsed what I brought to him gladly. The rest of our meeting, about 40 minutes, was a general and interesting discussion about politics, Ghana/South Africa relations, reconciliation and family matters. So now I know how many kids he has, where they are and what they do!!! He also knows a bit about mine!
When we finished, he repeatedly said, “anytime you need anything, just call me”. When I do call him again, I won’t be asking for anything. I will go back and report on how our activities went in Ghana and thank him. Because, if the only time I reach out to him is to ask for something, I am a leech. Every relationship has to be reciprocal. Even when you have less that the other person…your mind should always be thinking, what value can I offer here to genuinely improve this person's reality or contribute to their desired outcomes. Because as Africans, even in business, we never take without giving.
These tips apply across sectors.
Test them in your next big conversation with an important stakeholder. They work particularly well to break ice in difficult situations. Focus on relating to the person…and focus less on your agenda. Let me know if they work for you!.