It happens every summer: you call someone's office, but you can't reach her because she's on vacation. Pretty barren time for building a relationship, isn't it?
Actually, summer doesn't have to be a relationship wasteland. Let's say that you call a powerful corporate chieftain, and she says, "I don't have much time to talk. I'm going on vacation Friday, and I've got a billion things to do before I leave. If you want an appointment, call me after I get back."
The boss doesn't know it, but she's given you a gift: she's told you her schedule. Ask where she's going. If you're familiar with the place, offer her a tip or two about getting the most from it. If you're not familiar with it, ask her about it; people love to talk about their favorite vacation spots. Listen closely if she mentions surfing, hiking or other activities. You may find that the two of you enjoy the same sports or hobbies.
Before she leaves town, you could even send her a gift to make her vacation more enjoyable and to help her remember you fondly. If you know where she's going, give her a guidebook. If not, try a bestselling a "beach book" like Dean Koontz's The Husband, Mary Higgins Clark's Two Little Girls in Blue, James Patterson's The Fifth Horseman, or the new Harry Potter. Or a familiar old friend like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, or On the Road. Or a business book with a streak of fun, like Freakonomics. Whatever you give, remember to jot a personal note on the title page.
In addition, you can send a basket of fruit to her hotel - if you know her well. If you don't, getting something into her room can make you look like a stalker.
What about your own vacation time? The long weekends around July 4 and Labor Day virtually demand picnics, barbecues and other venues for getting to know people. My home town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, has a Fourth of July celebration that runs for days. The festivities include the Miss Fourth of July Pageant, a five-mile run, baking contests, arts and crafts displays, musical performances, a parade, and a fireworks show. It's one of the year's biggest events, and people from the whole county turn out for it. You probably have similar events in your area. Volunteer to help make them happen. You'll get to know business and political leaders, and you'll probably have a lot of fun.
If you can host a picnic or barbecue at your home, so much the better. Letting people into your private space is a terrific way to say, "I'm open and comfortable with you, and I hope you feel the same way about me." Or if you know a great spot for witnessing a fireworks display, host an event there.
Longer vacations provide a way to meet the important people. Every city has a local resort area where the wealthy and powerful play. I know a number of New Yorkers who have summer homes in the Hamptons. New Englanders go to Martha's Vineyard, Chicagoans head to Lake Geneva, Los Angelenos escape to Laguna Beach and Palm Springs, and so on.
Research the people who visit these places. Find out how they like to take their leisure. For instance, I used to golf. "The demographic of business and business associates are often that of a golfer or golf fan," says Brian Goin, director of the Professional Golfers Association's Players Championship.
I'm not saying that you should elbow your way into a corporate president's foursome. If you don't like spending long, slow hours on the golf course, then forcing yourself to do it will just annoy you and everyone around you. Instead, find something that you want to do and join other people who do it. I've recently taken up polo, for instance. If you genuinely love and get involved in an activity that a super-successful person plays, you'll increase your likelihood of meeting her.
While you're out socializing with the powerful, don't neglect the staff that they've left back at the office. When the boss is gone, her team gets to relax a little. Her gatekeeper — the secretary or administrative assistant who decides if and when the boss talks to you — has a little more time for the kind of friendly chatting that can make him your pal.
If you need someone to make a decision that the boss usually makes, ask the gatekeeper: "Since the boss isn't around, whom do you recommend I talk to?" This question shows the gatekeeper how much you trust his judgment. It also opens the door to other powerful people within the company. Instead of calling someone cold, you can introduce yourself with "Jack in Mary's office tells me that you're the company's authority on marketing [or finance or whatever]." After the boss gets back, don't forget to tell her about anything praiseworthy that her people did for you. She'll appreciate it, and so will they.
Bottomline? Vacation time doesn't have to be down time. It can be relationship time.