How to work a room


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CEO like a pro to grow your network and expand your sphere of influence.

By Thomas Magnuson

Years ago, I was driving former U.S. Secretary of State and Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus through some small towns as he campaigned for re-election. As we pulled into each town and event, we reviewed the attendee list of local businessmen, teachers and politicians so he could remember who was on his good side… and not-so-good side.

Every time he entered the room, he knew the name of every person there. It was because of this ability to make people feel needed and important that he served an unprecedented five terms as Idaho Governor.

In early 1992, Bill Clinton was a little-known Arkansas politician beginning his campaign for president. During this time, Hillary Clinton came to speak in Spokane, Washington. Instead of a large rally, there were only a handful of local women there. One of them was Mari Clack, a prominent community activist and philanthropist who helped found Women Helping Women, a nonprofit organization that helps women and children escape harmful environments.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Mari and her husband, David Clack, were in Seattle getting ready to attend a farewell dinner for former U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas Foley when they received a phone call from President Clinton’s chief of staff, inviting them to a small pre-function taking place in one hour.

Mari and Dave went upstairs to Clinton’s suite and waited. After a few minutes, the doors opened and Secret Service entered the room, followed by Bill Clinton who immediately came over to greet Mari. Despite never having met before, he told Mari that he remembered Hillary telling him all about her after the campaign in 1992. Hillary had told him all about how Mari and a group of women started a foundation that changed lives for many women and children.

Clinton told Mari he had waited years to meet her, thank her and let her know what an inspiration she is. Mari says that when Bill Clinton speaks to you, he is so focused it seems as if you are the only person in the room.

I grew up with a CEO dad. He never played sports with me, and I’m no good with power tools. But he did teach me, hands-on, how to work a room.

I got the specifics one day in 1990 when he was helping the governor of Idaho as chairman of the Idaho State Centennial Commission. He and I flew to Boise for a reception at the home of Arthur and Jane Oppenheimer, parents of fellow hotel owner, Seattle-based John Oppenheimer.

As we got out of the car outside the reception, my dad said, “Today I’m going to show you how to work a room.” When we entered the living room, we started first by greeting and thanking the hosts, which was the most important place to start. Then we made a circle through the house.

During the course of the party, I lost track of my dad. When I found him, he was sitting in a corner near the back cloakroom writing notes furiously on business cards and napkins. On the plane ride home that night, he dictated letters to everyone he met, and his assistant made note of all the information he’d gathered about kids, dogs, charities, spouses, etc.

When you make the effort to get to know people and write down their details, you will remember them all.

And guess what? They will remember you too.   ■

Thomas Magnuson co-founded Magnuson Hotels in 2003 with his wife Melissa. Today, Magnuson Hotels is a top-10 global hotel chain with 1,000 hotels across three continents. Magnuson Hotels has been ranked No. 1 Hotel Company of Inc. magazine’s 5,000 fastest-growing privately owned U.S. companies. Magnuson is a graduate of Harvard Business School, Pepperdine University School of Business and Tufts University. Prior to Magnuson Hotels, Magnuson was a professional drummer, performing and recording with members of David Bowie Band, Jethro Tull and the Doobie Brothers.

The Basics: Tom’s tips for working a room

1 Keep it moving, Bill-Clinton style. If you are a CEO, it’s perfectly expected that you need to say hello to lots of people.

2 Ask people, ‘how are you tonight?’ or ‘isn’t this a great party?’ ‘what’s new with family?’ ‘how is business?’ Acknowledge their recent successes.

3 Make eye contact always. Speak slowly and smile; you will often speak faster than you realize.

4 Ask about non-business things such as personal interests, kids, charities. Stay away from politics and religion at parties.

5 I don’t know much about sports, but I always read the headlines before a big party. It’s not hard to say, ‘how about those Red Sox?’

6Don’t eat while working the room.

7 Know your headlines, be familiar with economic trends.

8 Always make a point of saying hello to your competitors. Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.

9 Always bring business cards, paper and pen.

10Keep a detailed address book. The more you know, the better.


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