There is a story that talk show legend Larry King tells in his memoir, My Remarkable Journey, that gets to the heart of his gift for getting people to talk about themselves. Not only has this ability made him famous, it serves as inspiration for leaders who must learn how to create rapport with their stakeholders.
King began his radio career in Miami. One night to his great surprise he learned that Frank Sinatra would be a guest on his show. This was a time when King was a nobody outside Miami, and as Sinatra’s PR man explained to King just before airtime Sinatra paid him to keep him off shows like King’s. So as Sinatra settles in, King pops the first question.
Traditionally, as King relates in his book, local radio hosts would play chummy-chummy with big celebrities by pretending to be long-time friends. Not King. He asked Sinatra point blank, “Why are you here?” That got Sinatra to open up about his friendship with Jackie Gleason who had taken a liking to King. And since Sinatra owed Gleason a favor, that favor would be to appear on King’s show.
What King had done with Sinatra, as he has done with thousands of guests from the high and mighty to the people next door, is to shift focus from himself to the guest. This creates a sense of rapport that stimulates further conversation. Or years later as Sinatra once told King (then doing Larry King Live on CNN), “you make the camera disappear.” Bingo! A television conversation becomes just two people talking.
Rapport emerges from asking good questions but it rests on putting people at ease so that they feel comfortable in talking with you. Such talk is vital when speaking to customers, recruiting job candidates, and especially when making small talk with people in more senior position. Your ability to relate to people as people provides a window into your authenticity.
There is another more relevant point from King’s memoir: candor. King is open about his failed marriages and financial difficulties. He acknowledges these problems as ones of his own making and holds himself accountable. Leaders need not confess personal failings to associates at work; life after all is NOT Larry King Live. But when speaking to customers or colleagues about business issues, candor is important. When a customer or a colleague hears an executive own up to an issue that is affecting service or performance, even when he or she did not cause it directly, it radiates character.
Creating rapport with stakeholders is essential for any leader, and when learning how to do so, it might be useful to watch how the masters do it.
John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2009, Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John’s website, www.johnbaldoni.com