Making a case for charm school

When I was 24 I got sent to Bogota to spend a week with my client, the commercial shipping fleet of Colombia (Flota Mercante Grancolombiana).

When I was 24 I got sent to Bogota to spend a week with my client, the commercial shipping fleet of Colombia (Flota Mercante Grancolombiana).

I was understandably nervous about the trip and what was expected of me, even though the purpose of the visit was simply to receive an orientation on the client's business.

"You'll be great," my boss said. "Just be charming. You'll do fine."

I, of course, didn't believe him. I was sure that I needed to be knowledgeable, smart, and full of useful business insights that would enlighten the client. I felt my boss' advice was flippant and condescending.

Little did I know that he was totally right. The trip was filled with cocktail parties, dinners, and lunches, where, once I relaxed, I made friends and built relationships that would prove critical to a successful agency-client partnership.

My boss' words of advice have stayed with me for nearly three decades. Not only was he right back then about that particular business trip, but he provided me an insight that would prove invaluable for the rest of my professional life: Nothing can kill a good career like a bad personality.

When I was younger, I was so nervous about getting things right that I often overlooked the simple fact that most people prefer to work with colleagues who are pleasant, funny, and, well, charming.

In one of my previous jobs, I had a woman working for me who was super-efficient, smart, and could always be relied upon to deliver results. She was also wound tight as a drum, nervous, and humorless. She was ultimately promoted to a senior role, but didn't fare well because the senior management team found her difficult to work with. She was missing the charm gene, which cost her dearly.

Dale Carnegie apparently figured this out back in 1936 when he wrote one of the most popular business books of all time, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The first section of the book is called "Fundamental Techniques in Handling People," and the opening bit of advice is: "Don't criticize, condemn, or complain."

I'd like to photocopy that section and hand it out to half of the candidates I interview for jobs. I'm always astounded at how quickly some candidates begin to criticize and complain about former employers or competitors. It's a turnoff.

The second section is titled "Six Ways to Make People Like You." They are:

1. Become genuinely interested in other people.

2. Smile.

3. Remember that a person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

4. Be a good listener and encourage others to talk about themselves.

5. Talk in the terms of the other person's interest.

6. Make the other person feel important and do it sincerely.

There's a reason this book has sold 15 million copies. I mean, how can you argue with those six points? I've met and worked with so many competent professionals over the years who were apparently sick the day teacher discussed how vital it is to have other people actually like you.

I don't have an MBA, but I'm pretty sure that there's no advanced degree course curriculum for how to be charming. There ought to be.

In the end, it's this simple. Think about the folks you work with. Envision each one of them popping their head into your office or cubicle. How many of those images make you smile? How many make you cringe?

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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