This advice sounds a bit too clever, a bit too pat. And even worse, I think it comes from a lame movie from the 1980s.*

But for us freelancers, it’s gold.

When you talk with the CEO, or the Giant Creative Director, or the Division Manager Who Everyone Fears, you do it peer-to-peer, equal to equal.

There is no fawning, no stammering, no sucking up, no trying to impress. They get plenty of that already.

You are respectful and friendly of course, just as you would be with any co-worker. But you are not yes-ing or genuflecting or showing awe.

You like them just fine, but you are not beholden. (Because, as an independent, you aren’t beholden.) And bosses don’t see too much of that.

I once interviewed a Nobel Laureate named Arno Penzias, and we got on very well, mainly because I had no idea he was a Nobel Laureate until later. (Otherwise, I would have botched it.)

On a conference call with two product managers, a guy named “Jim” dropped in on the call. We had a lively back and forth, with me playing my usual devil’s advocate, smart-ass and know-it-all. He agreed to my view on the matter, and we went ahead.

Two days later I saw him interviewed on CNBC. I didn’t realize he was such a big deal. (And he didn’t know that I wasn’t.) He ended up being a client for years.

On the other hand, to the interns and assistants and the beleaguered underlings in accounts payable, we offer great deference.

We approach them with utmost respect and courtesy. (Because we were on those rungs once, too.)

When they track down that PowerPoint for us, we stay thank you, and tell the boss.

We ask their advice, remember their names. We take an interest. We treat them as peers, too. They feel we are on their side. (We do this with sincerity, of course, because it is the right thing to do.) They will feel lifted by this. And they will remember it.

Two years from now, you’ll get a call. “You don’t remember me, but I used to intern for Valerie Martin. I’m at a new firm, and was wondering if you could do some work for us. . . ”


Illustration by Denis Sazhin, from The Noun Project.

* The movie was Perfect, 1985, with Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta, who plays an aggressive, high-ego magazine writer. I remembered the line, but totally forgot the movie, which was indeed lame.