We all hope our resume and experiences will speak for themselves. But a friend of mine — a 40 year-old former special agent and combat veteran — recently emailed me about a persistent problem. "When I contact leaders in my industry, they almost always agree to talk," he told me. "But some have been treating me as if I were an undergrad." One asked if he was working on a "class project," while another suggested he "thank his parents" for sending him to graduate school (he paid his own way).
Those responses might be extreme, but my friend's situation isn't: many of us are underestimated by the people we come into contact with. With co-workers or others we see regularly, we can overcome negative perceptions through hard work and behavioral change. But how do you make a strong first impression on someone you're just meeting - and avoid falling into their unthinking mental frameworks (such as "anyone who asks for an informational interview must be an inexperienced student")?
I've certainly been there. A few years ago, I met a retired professor from a top business school. At the time, I had already taught at one business school and hoped to teach more. I thought he might be able to offer advice about how to break in at his school. He waved me off dismissively. "Every executive wants to teach at our business school," he told me. "My best advice is to apply to the doctoral program and maybe you could be a TA."
A year after that, I connected with an executive who ran a respected conference. I was thrilled when, at the end of our meeting, he introduced me to his employee, who was in charge of recruiting speakers. "I wanted to introduce you two — you should follow up," he said. I assumed the intro from her boss would have paved the way for an invitation to present, but just minutes into our follow-up meeting, I realized she literally knew nothing about me and had no idea why I was there. Suddenly, I was thrust into an unexpected "prove yourself" mode. At the end of the conversation, she turned to me: "I'm always looking for good speakers," she told me. "If you can think of anyone, let me know."
We all hope our merits will be recognized — and it's a jarring comeuppance when they're not. Some people begin to doubt themselves: should I actually be going back to graduate school? Others get angry at the people who have failed to see their potential (or their actual demonstrated ability). But the best plan, of course, is to ensure we're vigilant upfront about conveying our expertise — and that if we falter in an encounter, we move quickly to correct those misimpressions.
Before you meet a new contact, make sure they're aware of your background and expertise. I assumed the conference organizer had been fully briefed by her boss, but it was a costly mistake. She obviously could have been a lot more curious or organized, but setting the tone of the meeting was my responsibility, and I dropped the ball. Instead, as the famed psychologist Robert Cialdini advised when I interviewed him for my book Reinventing You, you should "send a letter of introduction that says, 'I'm looking forward to our interaction on Thursday on the topic of X, and my background and experience with regard to X are as follows.'" Says Cialdini, "It's perfectly appropriate to say those things in a letter of introduction, but it's not appropriate as soon as there's a face-to-face interaction because you look like a boastful braggart and a self-aggrandizer." The letter of introduction establishes your authority before you even step in the room, which would have helped me immeasurably.
During the meeting, have a number of anecdotes ready that demonstrate your expertise. You can likely predict the questions they'll ask; for each one, identify a story that showcases your abilities. If someone asks my friend about his "class project" and gets a response that instead cites his combat experience, it may (finally) sink in that he's not a regular student seeking career advice.
After the meeting, if you suspect they haven't fully grasped your potential, don't push it. I didn't argue with the business school professor that I actually was qualified to teach, or with the conference organizer that I was an excellent speaker. When it's clear someone has pigeonholed you, those protestations come off as slightly pathetic. Instead, recognize that you're in the long game now, and you need to change their opinion of you over time. If the relationship is worth cultivating, keep in touch and periodically update them with news about your progress ("just thinking of you, since I recently spoke at the XYZ conference"); if you have mutual friends, let them talk you up. They need to "discover you" and your value for themselves.
Meanwhile, don't let their limited judgment of you get you down. In the years following the dis from the retired business school professor, I've secured teaching engagements at four additional top business schools; I'm actually just back from guest lecturing at his own university.
Someday, if we're lucky, we may achieve enough recognition that our reputation always precedes us, and people are always thrilled to do business with us. Until then, there will be people who don't have a clue what we can offer. To advance in our careers and get the respect we deserve, the only solution is to recognize it's our responsibility to ensure they find out.