This is about how to understand where you are on the list and how to navigate it appropriately.
If you're reading this, you're probably a D-lister like the rest of of us. No big deal. If you have no idea that such a hierarchy even exists in society, you're probably not on the list at all, in which case this article may be even more helpful.
Why the rankings matter
The rankings aren't about making one person feel better about themselves than someone else. They are about understanding the role your ranking plays when positioned against another, so you know how to make the most of the relationship.
The problem is that most people aren't aware of these rankings, and so they run into a bunch of problems without knowing why.
They can't get meetings with the people they want. They aren't getting invited to the events they think they should attend. They are constantly chasing other people and no one is chasing them.
There are reasons for this, personality dysfunctions aside. It's because in the business world we work off of a real simple barter system - you give me something of value for something in return. Those at the top of the list have the most to give out, and those at the bottom have the least.
The key to getting that attention of those at the top is having something of value to trade.
How the Rankings Work
I'll break the rankings down into just four categories. Anything below a D-list is basically not relevant to the discussion.
A List - People need you, you don't really need them. You're Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates. You'll be just fine if you don't take my call. 99% of your day is spent telling people "no" because you have so much to give. Still, you realize that you need fresh ideas to stay on top, but you have your pick of the very best from where you stand.
B List - You've got a big title or a big company behind you - maybe you've cashed out for a significant amount of money. People consistently and obviously want you for some specific goal. You still wish you could have done what the A-list guys are doing and you're working your ass of to make that happen. You know you're not in the A-list but you're spending more energy trying to get with those guys than you are the C-listers.
C List - You've had a reasonable amount of success but you still need a big win or bigger job. You're a cut above the D-listers but really you're just the most accomplished among them. Occasionally you're called into conference panels with the B-listers but more often you're speaking to a room of D-listers.
D List - You're a good person who's sharp, but you haven't really made a significant name for yourself. You're buying tickets to conferences, not speaking at them. No one is going to become significantly more wealthy because you're taking their call.
I'm a C-Lister on a Good Day
I've had a bunch of successes, sold a few companies, made some money, and have done a ton of writing which has gotten my name out there. Still, no publicist is cold-calling me to see if I need representation. I'm a big company sale away from being a B-lister, but even then I'm a B-minus lister unless the sale price tag ends with a "B".
There's no magic potion to getting a better grade. Anyone who's moved into the upper rungs has almost certainly put a ton of time into it and has probably sacrificed a lot to get there.
Since most of us won't ever move beyond our current grade, the next best thing is to understand how to navigate among the grades gracefully.
Know when you're Asking up the Chain
The rankings start to matter when you're asking for a favor up the chain. The favor could be something as simple as requesting someone's time, but it matters.
Let's say I'm Joe D-List and I'm at a conference listening to Jenny B-List speak. Jenny is the CEO of some major company that I'd like to pitch my idea to.
The moment I walk up to Jenny and introduce myself she's instantly going to categorize me as a D-lister. If I don't realize or believe that this is going to happen I'm almost certainly going to piss off Jenny B-List because I'm clueless.
I've watched these poor presenters get tortured after conferences by a bunch of wild-eyed D-listers thinking they are going to drop everything they are doing because someone spent 2 minutes after a conference with them.
Jenny probably handed you her business card because it was the fastest way to get rid of you.
Avoid Bad Pickup Lines
If I'm lucky I've got 15 seconds worth of Jenny's attention, which is about how long it should take her to get rid of me. So in that time, I get one shot on her like Luke on the Deathstar.
If I go in with "I'd like to take you to lunch and pick your brain" I've missed completely and deserve to go hurtling into the face of the Deathstar. Why the heck would Jenny B-list want to spend one moment of her time listening to me ask her inane questions? Bad move.
If I go in with "I've got this great product that I think will be perfect for your company" I've missed less, but I'm still going to lose. Guess what? I'm not the first person who has wanted to sell her something. That's exactly what the 20 people behind me are about to do. Still dead.
For example, I might say "I've noticed your site is getting a boatload of traffic targeting single moms. We're looking to do some ad buys in that space. Can we talk about how you guys are integrating advertisers?"
Jenny is going to pay attention to that. Why? Because she benefits from it. Jenny draws in single moms on her Web site so that someone will pay for those visitors. You've just offered to make her money. She's going to take your call.
Don't Shoot Blanks
Now I know what you're thinking, "I'm a D-Lister. What if I don't have anything to offer Jenny?".
My most honest advice is to hold off asking at all unless you have something to contribute. Jenny may just be a super nice person that takes meetings all the time. I do it for people all of the time because I like helping people.
But if you're serious about your request, you shouldn't leave it up to good will. It's your responsibility to create a compelling reason for Jenny to want to help you.
So what do you Offer?
There are a handful of things that have value, and I'd suggest considering all of them. Go get the ones you don't have. If you come up totally empty-handed on this list, you need to start thinking about filling up this list before you consider throwing out a bunch of empty requests.
Here's a quick list of what's valuable, in order of importance:
Money - At the end of the day it all comes back to money. If you have it, people want it. If you're an investor, you're everyone's friend. If you're a CMO with a big marketing budget, you're almost everyone's friend. Chances are, this isn't what you've got to offer, but even creating access to it makes you very valuable.
Connectivity - Your ability to connect people to the right resources is a big deal. Call it your social capital, but it matters. If you have a deep rolodex of C-level decision makers I guarantee there's a B-list exec that wants to talk to you. Building your connectivity is one of the few things that you can intentionally do to create the leverage you need to move up the list.
Knowledge - Rupert Murdoch is a big deal, but the Founders of MySpace had the specialized knowledge of how a social network operated. He needed that. He was willing to take a meeting (and write a big check) to get it. Developing specialized and highly desirable knowledge is a great way to move up the chain because very few people have the time and capacity to replicate it.
Time - It's useful, but everyone has it. I have just as many waking hours as you do, and I sleep a lot. Saying that you'll work for free or work long hours is nice, but so will someone else. This one has to come with the previous items.
Network... like, a lot
A great deal of your business success is always going to be tied to relationships, which is essentially networking. I hate the term "networking" though. It conjures up ideas of some service provider holding a cocktail pretending to like me long enough to read my name badge.
What I'm talking about is meeting lots of people and going out of your way to help them. Most of those people will never return the favor, and that's fine. But by helping them you will build a reputation for being a useful asset, and by way of that, your network will grow.
Since you can't magically create more money, the only thing you can do deliberately today is create more connectivity. Coupled with the understanding of how to leverage your approach with the different groups, you're well on your way to moving up the ladder.