To Open Doors, Woo the Gatekeeper

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Even before they get to the job interview, applicants must be articulate, polite and compelling. It's not the hiring manager you're trying to impress - it's the corporate gatekeepers. Make friends with them, and whole new worlds can open up.

"Gatekeepers aren't meanies. They're their boss's designated agents charged with limiting unnecessary, potentially wasteful interruptions and unexpected interference," says Debra Feldman, a Connecticut-based executive talent agent. Thus, if you don't know the boss - or, more likely, the boss has never heard of you - "you have to show the gatekeeper it's okay to give you an appointment, schedule a meeting, provide an e-mail address or switch you to voice mail," she says.

In a recent conference call with members of Financial Executives International, an organization of senior-level finance professionals, Feldman proffered these keys to the corporate kingdom:

Offer a low risk, high reward situation.

"Do your homework. Plan your presentation so it's clear, compelling and engaging. Pique the gatekeeper's curiosity. Be ready to address him or her by name, to ask if she has time for your call and how her day has been. If she hesitates or seems busy, offer to call back, even before you leave your name. Ask if there's a more convenient time to call."

Convince the gatekeeper there's no reason not to offer you an appointment.

Her own job security depends on the quality of her screening process. So, Feldman says, make her believe "it would be more detrimental to keep you out than to let you in."

The more interaction you have, the more invested the gatekeeper becomes in your success.

"Speak respectfully. Be polite," Feldman advises. "Make small talk. Ingratiate yourself and it's more likely your proposal will sound attractive. Be likable and you'll be able to more clearly communicate your value, engage in a dialog and have the chance to explain more about your business."

Follow the gatekeeper's instructions, cooperate and be pleasant.

So if she asks you to e-mail a request, do so within 24 hours, while your name is still in mind. Be pleasant. "Smile as you speak. It will come through in your voice," Feldman says.

Gatekeepers can become your personal liaison, making the boss more receptive and facilitating the impossible.

If the gatekeeper comes to trust you, she can become your advocate. Feldman says that might translate into "squeezing an appointment for you into a booked calendar, talking you up to the boss, giving you hints to help your meeting be more positive."

Timing is critical.

"Don't be discouraged if your first approach isn't wholeheartedly embraced," Feldman says. "Regroup and, after an appropriate interval, attempt another connection, revising your presentation. Persistence and creativity pay off. And follow-up is key to making progress."

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