"Flattery will get you nowhere," goes the saying. It turns out it's not true, but it takes a smooth operator to use flattery to advance one's career. In this area, IT managers might take a cue from lawyers and sales executives, according to Ithai Stern, assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Chicago's Kellogg School of Management. More than executives with functional backgrounds including engineering, those with people-oriented backgrounds such as sales or law are better at ingratiating themselves effectively, Stern told Kellogg Insight.
In a new study including interviews with 42 managers and CEOs of large U.S. companies, Stern and his colleague James Westphal of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business identify seven specific flattery tactics most likely to help land top executives board seats. A number of these strategies would also apply to senior managers or CIOs looking to earn greater recognition by making the most of face time with higher-ups.
The common denominator here is subtlety. We all know how annoying overt brown-nosing statements can be. When someone tries to network with you by way of fawning, don't you have the impulse to shut him down out of hand? According to Stern's research, here are some creative ways to flatter without getting in anyone's face:
Flatter indirectly by seeking advice. People are almost always flattered when people seek their advice, which makes this tactic a natural way in. This is also a great networking strategy in general, especially for those who are introverted or uncomfortable with networking.
Argue your point, then arrive at agreement. "You know, at first I didn't agree, but now that you've explained it that way, I see your point." It's hard to appear unctuous when you start out respectfully disagreeing. Arguing also helps you appear serious and offers an opportunity to show both conviction and willingness to listen to other points of view.
Compliment the bigwig to his peers. If you speak well (and intelligently) of someone's strengths, your comments will get back to him or her (almost as surely as badmouthing will).
Flatter apologetically. "I don't want to embarrass you, but I've always admired the way you inspire your team." With this method, you're letting the person know at the outset that brown-nosing isn't your goal. There's also the built-in bonus flattery of implying the person's modesty.
Express shared values or morals. "I'm the same way. I've never found it productive to bully my staff."
Get the skinny on the higher-up's opinions. This may seem sneaky, but it's in the findings. Find out from colleagues or others who know your flattery target what opinions your target holds. Raise these issues in face-to-face conversations with your target as a chance to agree with her opinions. Note: this doesn't have to be as sketchy as it sounds if your interest in learning about the person is sincere.
Slip in a reference to a shared social affiliation. For example, if you both belong to the same political party or support the same charity, mention a news story or activity you recently participated in.
My one caveat to all these techniques is that it has to come from a real place. Consciously look for sincere feelings of admiration if you must. A smooth operator can pull off a lie, but everyone can make genuine interest work.