Many ambitious corporate climbers mistakenly believe that a chance to interact with a chairman or CEO is a great opportunity to advance one's career.
They imagine that impressing or charming the great and powerful will lead to promotion and reward. While this certainly can be true, real-life experience has taught me that exposure to the top definitely cuts both ways.
Powerful people are highly demanding, with little patience or interest in small talk, and thus must be handled cautiously by the less experienced. I had a friend who worked as the chief communications officer for a well-known, powerful, but notoriously unpredictable CEO.
At one particular Christmas party, my friend had the task of taking this CEO around and introducing him to various employees. During the rounds, a young woman from accounting wished the CEO happy holidays and asked him to dance. The CEO smiled and politely declined, went back to the office, and asked my friend to accompany him. When the door closed, the CEO calmly declared that the party was out of control, everyone was drunk, and ordered all future holiday parties cancelled. True story.
The good news is that the boss forgot about his decree by the time Christmas rolled around the next year.
Unfortunately, not all encounters end so innocently. In one of my earlier incarnations, I supervised a director-level employee who desperately sought face time with the chairman. I've always believed in providing my staff with the opportunity to work directly with senior management, but I have also gone to great lengths to make sure they are set up to succeed when they meet with the boss.
This particular ambitious employee was a smart guy, but unfocused and a bit awkward socially, which I knew could be dangerous when dealing with the corner office. He managed to survive under the radar until conflicting schedules left him as the only communications person available to staff our chairman's speech at a conference outside of Washington, DC.
The morning of the speech, my staffer ran into our chairman in the lobby of the hotel at which they were both staying. Rather than grab an expensive, hour-long cab ride, my staffer figured he could bum a ride with the chairman, who, of course, had a personal car and driver. Instead of following corporate protocol and asking the chairman's assistant in advance, my guy directly approached the chairman who kindly agreed to let the knucklehead share a ride.
On the way to the speech, my guy apparently tried to make small talk and discuss business issues. The chairman was not amused. Later, I asked the chairman how it went. He said, "Fine, but you need to fire that guy who rode with me."
A very successful colleague, who holds the top communications job at a Fortune 10 company, told me something very wise. He said that in his second week on this high-powered job he was asked to fly to Africa for a crisis. An assistant from the executive floor called and asked if my friend would like to ride in the corporate jet with the vice chairman. My friend, who had yet to meet the vice chairman, asked how long the flight was. When told it was a 12-hour trip, my friend politely declined and said he'd fly commercial.
"When I heard it would be just me and the vice chairman alone for 12 hours," he explained, "I knew that at the end of the flight we'd either be best friends or I'd be fired. I wasn't ready to take that risk after just two weeks on the job."
Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.