When Mary (not her real name) was starting her business in the mid-1980s, she targeted a large potential customer in Tennessee. She called up the company and convinced the managing director that it was in his interest to set up a meeting. "Fine," he said. "I'd like to meet with your president and play a round of golf with him." Always quick on her feet, Mary replied, "He's currently opening our operation in Asia and will be back in two months." The managing director replied, "Okay, let us know when he's back and we'll nail down a date."
As a female business owner thriving in a man's world, Mary prides herself on being innovative, competitive, courageous and tenacious. She told me this story on the condition that I not use her real name or mention the name of her company, which provides technology and consulting solutions for a variety of industries.
In the scenario above, why didn't Mary just tell the managing director that she was the business owner? She had sized up the way of doing business in the South and come to terms with the cold, hard reality. It was (and still is) a good 'ole boy network where deals are done over cigars, adult beverages and a handshake. Rather than fighting the system, Mary decided to play their game. She went to a large acting agency and combed through hundreds of headshots of men. She was looking for the seasoned "corporate" type who might be able to play the role of president of her company. Mary interviewed 25 actors and finally settled on one. During the following 2 months she trained him on the business, the industry and her company in particular.
When the appointed meeting date rolled around, Mary accompanied her "faux" president as his administrative assistant. She had schooled him well, since he answered most of the customer's questions with confidence. But when the managing director fired a question that he couldn't answer, he feigned a dry throat and coughed. Mary stepped in with the correct answer. This of course, baffled the big boys at the client company. Mary and her "acting" president explained that they work closely together and she travels with him all the time. Thus, she knows the business like the back of her hand.
Finally, Mary had to leave the group and let them go play golf. After an anxiety ridden afternoon and evening, her stand-in finally called her at 11:00 PM. "You've got the business," he said.
Mary has retained that customer for the past 20 years. I asked if she had ever fessed up to him. "No. Never. Why should I?"
A fascinating story -- and approach. But I look forward to the day when male entrepreneurs have to hire female actors to stand in as the faux CEOs in order to get a project!
This post first appeared on Forbes.com