Become Your Own Best Gatekeeper

Harvard Business Review

I spend my life trying to get past gatekeepers. As a consultant, I've been trained to sniff out underlings who can only say no (and aren't authorized to say yes), and strategically work to evade them. But in my own life, as I've become increasingly deluged with inquiries of all sorts, I've come to appreciate the importance of gatekeeping: a clean, crisp way of whittling down the requests and a solution to the guilt that comes from saying no.

Of course I don't mean everyone should go out and hire an assistant to man the velvet rope for you (though it's easier than ever, given the proliferation of online sites like Elance and oDesk.) Instead, as the volume of information and ease of communication only increases, we all need to become our own gatekeepers. The more hassles we can triage, the more meaningful work we can accomplish.

There's a risk, of course, that saying no means you'll miss out on something. Kathryn Minshew recently made a good case here on HBR.org that you should "Never Say No to Networking." "Always say yes to invitations," she wrote, "even if it's not clear what you'll get out of the meeting. I'm not arguing for long, pointless, unstructured conversations with everyone you meet. But many of my most fruitful relationships have resulted from a meeting or call in which I was not entirely sure what would or would not come of the conversation." It seems to have worked quite well for her, as (she describes) she landed a partnership with Yahoo and was invited onto CNN as a result of those serendipitous connections.

I'm all for taking the time to meet interesting new people (that's why I make a point to go to conferences like Renaissance Weekend. And I recall well, at the start of my career, how flattered I felt to be asked for a meeting or some advice — thrilled to be looked at as enough of an expert to be of help. Kathryn Minshew may simply be a better time manager than I am. But I've found that as my career has progressed, I'm increasingly approached by a stream of people with requests that seem destined to take a fair amount of time and generate little payoff (recently, someone I didn't know from a foreign country wrote and asked me to become his mentor because, he explained, "I have something interesting I'd like to write"). A message that random is easy to ignore.

But what about harder calls — students from your alma mater, friends-of-friends who need career help, or nonprofits that have no money but desperately need counsel? You want to help, but you could spend your entire career saying yes to people who provide little reciprocal value (the emotional value is different, but it doesn't pay the bills). As your visibility increases, you have to put better screening mechanisms in place — the reward being a lot more time and a lot less hassle in your professional life.

The first step is to filter new contacts through your existing ones. That's not because your friends are the coolest or only your circle knows what's going on (though that's often how it's interpreted). Instead, it's actually a kind of game: in a networked world, is your prospective suitor canny enough to work social channels (whether it's scouring LinkedIn connections, joining a board you're involved in, or finding out via Twitter that you're attending a certain gathering) to get a warm introduction?

I was recently talking with Jeffrey Bussgang, a prominent Boston venture capitalist. How does he find good prospects to invest in? Referrals. He has never funded an investment that came in cold. He polled his VC colleagues: "The odds of actually receiving funding from a cold email: 50,000 to 1," he writes in his book Mastering the VC Game: A Venture Capital Insider Reveals How to Get From Start-up to IPO on Your Terms. "So when an entrepreneur makes a cold approach to a VC, it marks him as an outsider. The guy doesn't know anybody? He can't find a better way to get to me? He may look clueless about this most basic aspect of deal making."

When someone comes to you with a request for help, you also want to avoid saying yes too easily. It's simple for someone to ask for an hour-long meeting, and it's gratifying to agree. But those meetings can add up quickly; I get several requests a week and some colleagues I know get many more. Instead, I've discovered that you can often identify the best and most promising contacts if you make them work a little bit for the connection, because the cream will rise to the top. Some people get discouraged and give up if you say, "I'm swamped now, but can you email me in six weeks?" In fact, that's the goal — lazy people will get on a career development kick when they're panicked about finding a new job, and their interest will wane the moment they land one. The people who are responsible go-getters will mark it in their calendar and follow up diligently six weeks later — and those are the ones you actually want to meet.

I really didn't want to take the time to connect with Yeva, a young woman who had graduated from my college and hoped to break into the world of marketing and advertising. She sent a very kind note and had obviously read my work, but I was just too busy. But she was polite and persistent enough that I finally agreed to meet for coffee, and we had a good conversation in which I advised her to start a blog. A month or two later, she followed up and sent me a link; she'd already posted several. She had essentially passed several tests — how to score a meeting, and how to turn a one-time coffee into an ongoing relationship. (She had also started following me on social media and frequently retweeted my messages.) Impressed, when I got free tickets to a marketing conference where I was speaking, I offered her the pass (she accepted and attended).

You can develop your own criteria for whom to "let in the gate." Maybe it's people with a deep and specific interest in your niche (wearable computing), people who share a common background (fellow UVA alums or Rotary members), or people referred by a trusted colleague. It could be those who've passed the "call me in six weeks" test, or simply those who have done their homework, reading everything you've written and taking an interesting point of view. But the key is to have a plan.

No one likes to "just say no" all the time, shutting down and refusing requests. We want to be helpful, and we want to identify the people, companies, and causes that are on the move. I'm a huge fan of our technology-enabled, accessible society, in which anyone can reach you with a tweet or find your email address online. But, at least for me, I've found that you can't always say yes. You simply won't be able to achieve your own goals if you're constantly reacting to others' needs and entreaties. The best answer in an overcrowded world is to develop the right system for when and how to say no. Because the people who are resourceful enough to get through the gatekeepers are usually the ones you want to bet on.

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