Everyone knows that getting appointed to a corporate board can be a huge boost to your career. What's less well-known is the role that flattery plays in getting nominated to a board seat. Now two business-school professors, Ithai Stern, of the Kellogg School of Management, and James Westphal, of the University of Michigan, have completed a research study about ingratiation and social interaction among high-level managers that uncovers the kind of subtle flattery most likely to land you on a corporate board.
Stern and Westphal surveyed 134 CEOs and 765 board members, asking them to divulge their most effective tactic for boosting a boss' ego without arousing suspicion. Reassured that the study was backed by two prestigious business schools, the executives did just that. Ithai and Westphal then looked to sources such as Standard & Poor's and annual reports to track board movements and social affiliations among the CEOs and board members. That allowed them to get a handle on which executives managed to nab the most board seats, and which forms of flattery seemed to work best. Ithai and Stern now believe that the success of lawyers, politicians, and salespeople in landing disproportionate numbers of board seats is at least partly attributable to the fact that they need to be adept at currying favor just to get their jobs done.
Of all the tactics the executives used to ingratiate themselves, Stern and Ithai found these seven were most effective:
- Complimenting while asking for advice. Position the other person as your superior on some important matter, then ask their opinion. (i.e. "How were you able to launch that project so quickly?")
- Argue, then give in. Agreeing with your manager right off the bat, all the time, is far too obvious. So put up a little bit of a fight, then cave in. (i.e. "I didn't see what you meant at first, but now it's clear. I'm glad you explained it to me.")
- Compliment the manager to his or her friends. If you and your manager have overlapping social networks, you can talk about how great the manager is in hopes the praise will eventually get back to him or her-with your name attached, of course.
- Admit that flattery can be uncomfortable. Preface your obsequious remarks with a phrase such as "I don't want to embarrass you, but…"
- Emphasize similarities with your manager. Don't just agree, point out that you agree. (i.e., "I feel the same way. We should relocate the Miami office.")
- Point out agreements your boss didn't know existed. Research your boss's opinions by talking to third parties, then drop your own similar opinions into conversations with the boss.
- Find common social affiliations and talk them up. If your boss serves on the board of a cancer charity, make sure he or she knows how important cancer research is to you. (It is, right?)
Worried that these tactics are too obvious, too transparent? You can use them in moderation and still dramatically boost your chances of winning a board appointment. Ithai and Stern found that if an executive merely offered an unsuspecting nominating board member two ingratiating compliments a year and agreed with him or her enthusiastically twice a year, the chances of being nominated shot up an astounding 68%.
Now does it seem worthwhile to give sweet-talk a try?
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. She was most recently a senior editor at BusinessWeek and founding editor of BusinessWeek SmallBiz, an award-winning bimonthly magazine for entrepreneurs. Follow her on twitter.com/weisul.
Thanks to BNet