Successful leaders know how to 'work the room'


Kenneth Blanchard, author of “The One Minute Manager” and a management expert, said that the key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority. And the keys to influence are relationships, advises Farrell Chiles, author of “As BIG As It Gets” and board chairman of Blacks in Government (BIG) from 2002 to 2006.

How can you — as an aspiring leader or current leader — build potentially pivotal relationships?

Network aggressively, Chiles said in an interview. It is easier to win votes for a run for an elective office or gain support for your ideas from people who have previously enjoyed favorable contact with you — even if only in passing — than from complete strangers.

Likewise, people will generally be more eager to join your organization if you attempt to recruit them via personal contacts than via anonymous solicitations.

Following these principles, after reading several books by networking guru Susan RoAne, Chiles embarked on a bold networking campaign that involved “always doing my best to approach people at all levels of the hierarchy, ask them how they are doing, thank them for all they do for BIG, and try to show that my leadership is a caring leadership,” Chiles said. “Wherever I go, I try to put myself in the position of a host and introduce people to one another.”

One way that Chiles does so is by arriving early for meetings and conferences, walking the meeting area, greeting attendees regardless of whether he already knows them, initiating light conversations and introducing attendees to one another.

He recommends kicking off such interactions by asking attendees such questions as: “Have we met before?” “Where are you from?” and “What brought you to this event?”

In addition, Chiles arms himself with conversational points for such interactions by reading the newspaper and watching the news every morning.

Also, Chiles takes care to remember peoples’ names after meeting them and to use them whenever he meets them again. He follows up with new acquaintances via occasional or strategically timed phone calls or emails.

In the past, such follow up “allowed me to continue to sell myself and my abilities as board chair, and gave members venting opportunities,” Chiles said. In fact, Chiles attributes his record-breaking longevity as BIG’s board chair, in part, to his ability to “work a room” and his dedication to maintaining positive one-on-one relationships with each of the 24 BIG board members who voted on each of his five bids for the board’s chairmanship.

Study public speaking, even if you hate it, Chiles said. Though he has always been eager to interact with small groups of people, he long dreaded public speaking. Nevertheless, early in his career, Chiles realized that he would have to become an inspirational public speaker in order to become a leader.

And so many years ago, Chiles began working doggedly to improve his presentation skills by attending executive speech courses, joining a corporate speech club and participating in public speaking competitions.

Even so, Chiles’ biggest dread remained delivering opening presentations at annual BIG meetings that were typically attended by more than 3,000 members. “Each time, all I wanted to do was to get up, speak for less than eight minutes, and sit down,” he says in his book.

But recognizing the importance of working on weaknesses rather than ignoring them, Chiles continued to hone his public speaking skills by immersing himself in the topic at hand, repeatedly rehearsing his speeches until he could deliver them flawlessly, working to exude confidence and passion and pumping himself up before each speech via self-talk and mind-mapping — imagining himself succeeding at the podium before each speech.

The result: Chiles earned critical acclaim for many of his BIG speeches and is now regularly offered paid speaking gigs — which he actually enjoys pursuing.

Which just goes to show: You don’t necessarily need to have a natural affinity for an activity to ultimately excel in it.


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  1. An extremely talented and solid approach to leadership and management i.e. care and concern for those you serve from bottom to the top.

    Get on the circuit!

  2. Jill Patterson on

    We’ve been fortunate to have Mr. Chiles organize a number of programs for us and introduce the speakers. He is truly dedicated to the causes he supports.

  3. Interesting that this article references a book that was apparently authored by Mr. Chiles; however, it never gives the name of the book. It may have proven a useful resource for readers of this article.

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