A longtime consultant friend of mine recently joined a senior CEO group in order to build connections and scale her business. After attending her first meeting, she shared with me her dismay that the other CEOs in the room – all men – treated her as something of the junior partner in the room. While each of them was welcoming and eager to share their expertise, she was surprised at how they targeted their advice to her as if she was just starting out in business, rather than someone with 20+ years of experience in her field.

She asked me what advice I had for establishing her credibility in new settings like this one where she was an unknown quantity among a group of her peers…and the only woman. Here’s the advice I gave her which is really the same advice I’d give anyone of any age, background and gender when you need to quickly establish your bona fides.

Build Attendee Dossiers

Even before you enter the room, take the opportunity to build a dossier on everyone who will be in attendance using tools like CharlieLinkedIn and Klout. This sort of ‘professional stalking’ puts you in possession of the needed facts to make a great first impression. Then, when you first shake hands with someone, you can put a face to a name and ask a relevant question about their expertise, their company’s latest initiative or a talk they gave at the Commonwealth Club last month.

Prep the Host
One of your biggest potential allies in the room is the event host. This is the person who, armed with the right information, can set you up for success. Provide him/her with the latest version of your short bio, complete with titles, company names and any unique accomplishments or hobbies that will make you memorable. Structure your accomplishments using the P-S-O method. When you joined X organization, they were facing this Problem (P), you successfully implemented this Solution (S) and the Outcome (O) was the following (ex: growth in sales, increased ROI, etc.)

Lay out your PSO’s and other talking points in bullet format and print the whole document out in 18-point font. Ask your host to use these points verbatim and invite him/her to add details of how they know you, why you will be of strategic value to the group or any additional highlights they’d like to add. If you’re worried that he/she might embellish in a way that doesn’t position you effectively, then ask them to stick to the script.

Let him/her know you are counting on them to create the context for the group and request that they use this opportunity to establish you as the peer of those in the room. Often hosts overlook this important role but a little quiet coaching can assure your (and their) success.

Build Personal Connections at the Coffee Break

Whether you come early or mingle during the breaks, it serves you well to create conversation with others rather than retreat to a corner with your cellphone. It can be difficult to break in to a well-established group, where people tend to pair off to talk with friends, but the coffee table or the bar are often great places to catch people alone and ready for conversation. Use these breaks as an opportunity to drop some compliments into the conversation – whether taking notice of something they said in the meeting or something you know they’ve accomplished. (see Do Your Homework above) While everyone says they don’t like flattery, that is almost never true!

Ask Strategic Questions That Position Your Expertise

The very best way to position yourself in a gathering of this sort is to ask the strategic question. Questions of this sort often have two parts – one that establishes your background and expertise and the other that lets people see you have a sense of their needs. Here’s what I mean. Rather than ask, “What’s the next challenge you face?”, why not rephrase to, “From what I understand of your business, you’re facing challenge X. In my experience at Y company, we discovered that one effective strategy in a situation like this is Z. Would that work in your context?” Now, you’ve not only established you have done your homework, but you’ve also let people know what you’re bringing to the table.

Plan Your 3 Key Talking Points

Most of us enter a room, even when we are hoping to make a good impression, without spending time thinking through what we want to say in advance. Yet, even a short amount of time preparing a few key talking points will not only cut any nervousness but also assure that you establish your credibility, add value and come away with the information you need. Your talking points might be a question about a key initiative you are working on, a new idea you are validating, a challenge your company is facing or an observation about where your industry is headed. When you are in a minority situation (you are the youngest, the only woman/man, etc.) use language like, “I’d like to get your thoughts on something…” rather than, “I’d like your advice.” The former puts you on a par with the person you are talking with, the latter puts them above you in the pecking order.

Update Your Online Presence

Just as you will be researching who will be in the room, others will be researching you. Take a moment to update your LinkedIn profile and personal or corporate website to make sure that your bio is up to date and presents the very best version of you. Lead with your expertise and prominently display any credentials that you’ve earned. Ask a friend with great editing skills to be another set of eyes before posting the final version. For extra credit, post a few articles that showcase your expertise and position you as a peer to those you will be meeting.

Final Thoughts and Brownie Points 

We’ve all heard the research about the importance of first impressions. Dressing as a peer of those in the room is only the first step. (I hire an image consultant, Suzie Woodward Morris, to assure I look my best.) On a more subconscious level, mirroring other’s body language, facial expressions and even echoing (not stealing) other’s ideas can all be winning strategies — when not taken to an extreme. Perhaps the biggest brownie points can be earned by a sense of humor and a willingness to be in on the joke. I am not suggesting that you go along with humor you find inappropriate or rude, but not taking yourself too seriously can go a long way to winning friends and influencing people. Finally, as this recent excellent blog post from Sam Horn says, there is no better way to ensure that people take you seriously than to listen like you like to be listened to. So few people do. You’ll be amazed at the difference it will make.

Share your thoughts and ideas below. What techniques have you used to build credibility in a new setting?