Building Relationships With the C-Suite

Building Relationships With the C-Suite

My experience with interacting with c-suite level executives started when I joined the United States Navy at nineteen years old. My first duty station was aboard the USS Simon Lake. The person at the helm of the ship is the Commanding Officer (CO), and the CO has the ultimate responsibility for the entire ship and the accomplishment of its assigned mission. One of my greatest fears was having to talk to the CO. I feared the position because I felt irrelevant and that what I had to say was not important. This fear was realized when I had the pleasure of meeting the CO of one of the ships in port at the Norfolk Naval Station. I met him by backing into the vehicle he was driving. I will never forget that day. Even though there was no damage to either vehicle, the CO was extremely upset and proceeded to make me feel like I was the most insignificant being on earth.

In 1998, I completed my service with the US Navy and landed my first job in corporate America. As an Administrative Assistant, I learned that the person in charge of the company is known as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Remembering my experience in the Navy, I automatically made it my mission to avoid the CEO and other executives at all costs. This was relatively easy as the company I worked for was leaving me with no more than a picture on a wall as to who the executives were.

In 2006, I started a new job at a much smaller company where the CEO was well known and more visible. On my first work anniversary, I received a handwritten note from the CEO acknowledging my work over that first year. That was the moment I realized that while not all executives are the same, they are at least human. During my first year at the company, I was introduced to other C-level officers, one I even beat at a friendly game of Texas Hold’em during the annual holiday party. Looking back, had I known he was a C-Level officer, I might have let him win.

Over time, I found myself presenting analytics and ideas to executives. While I did make a few mistakes along the way, over the years I learned that executives are people too. Just like you and me, they go to bed at night and get up in the morning. The main differences may be in that they wear more expensive clothes, live in more expensive houses, drive more expensive cars, and are most likely the busiest people at the company.

Based on my research and my own experiences, I highlighted below a few tips to help you along the way if you too have a fear of getting in front of the C-Suite.

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Understand and get past your fears

When I first started meeting with executives, I was afraid to talk about anything. I soon learned how to overcome my fears and became more comfortable presenting to them. If you are fearful of being in front of executives the best thing you can do is remember that they are people too. If you are still fearful, identify what it is you are afraid of and learn how to overcome it. Below are a few common fears and ways to overcome them.

Fear of Talking to Executives

  • Identify what you are afraid of, if it is fear of speaking in front of a large group practice in front of your peers.
  • Prepare, don’t memorize. When we regurgitate information from memory it can often come across as robotic.
  • Prepare ahead of time and know what it is you are presenting.
  • Practice, practice, practice. The more you practice the more you will be familiar with your information and the less rehearsed it will sound.
  • Be enthusiastic and confident as you speak. Go into the meetings with executives with confidence. The more confident you are about what you are presenting or selling the more confident the recipients will be.

Intimated by Executives

  • Identify what you are intimated by.
  • Replace hyperbole with fact – don’t let your imagination run wild. It is easy to put those who are in more advanced roles on a pedestal. After conducting research, you will often find that executives are very relatable.
  • Increase exposure to executives within your organization as well as organizations outside of your company. One way to do this is by joining organizations in which you hold a certification.
  • Mind your body language and project confidence.

Confidence in Industry, Product, or Service
Research the industry as well as information about the client you are speaking or selling to. Some of the ways you can research include but are not limited to:

  • Existing connections
  • Google
  • Client website
  • Social Media such as LinkedIn
  • Publications they have written

Preparing ahead of time will build the self-confidence needed to sell your product or service.

Staying Relevant

  • Understand what is important to the client.
  • Keep them abreast of industry insights.
  • Investigate what their interests are.
  • Be knowledgeable on product enhancements and new releases.

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Build rapport but don’t get too comfortable

Executives, like all of us, are human with lives both at work and outside of work. Therefore, one of the first things you will want to do is learn how to build a rapport with the C-Suite. You can start by looking for connection points or areas you might have in common such as the college you attended. There are several ways to learn about executives, you can start by conducting Google searches, reviewing their social media accounts such as LinkedIn, or by researching and reading any publications they may have written.

As in any relationship, as you start to build rapport, it is easy to get comfortable enough that you feel you can say anything. This is normal, however as you are building your relationships with executives you should be wary of getting too comfortable. There was a time when if I saw others joking around during meetings, I tended to join in. I got so comfortable that often I started some of my presentations off with a joke. However, during my annual review, I was told that one of my most significant opportunities was to work on taking my job more seriously. You can imagine my surprise as I did not think there was anyone taking their job more seriously than I was. However, when my manager received feedback from others, the consensus was that because I often joked around in meetings, it seemed I was not serious about the results I was presenting.

While some of your coworkers might enjoy a good joke, there is a time and place for it and an important presentation might not be the right time or place. Remember you are there to get buy-in for your product, idea, or service, not to show off your comedic talents.

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Know your audience

Early on in my career, I felt it was very important to relay as much detail as possible whenever presenting data to executives. One day after one of my presentations, my manager called me aside and mentioned that the information I was providing, while very informative, was boring to attendees. He could see their eyes glazing over. I did not understand what he meant until I saw it for myself. From that point on, I started learning more about the executives and what they wanted to see in a presentation. The most important thing to keep in mind is that an executive’s time is limited. To get buy-in for your idea, product, or service you should tailor the information in a way that resonates with the audience quickly. One such method would be to tailor the presentation to the executive’s decision-making style(s). Adapting the information to an executive’s decision-making style can help steer the conversation in the right direction. Per my research, here are four decision-making styles of executives and how to tailor the presentation.

  • Analytical decision-makers are careful and adaptable thinkers who analyze data and glean information to form a decision. When addressing these types of thinkers, you might talk about the details of the problem and provide a solution using quantitative impact and evidence.
  • Conceptual decision-makers are big picture thinkers who evaluate different options and possibilities. Think about how your idea, product, or service fits into the broader strategy.
  • Directive decision-makers are action-oriented leaders who are focused on the task and will use their knowledge to draw conclusions with selective input from others. Discuss your information and provide options.
  • Behavioral decision-makers are persuasive and rely on information from others to guide their decisions. They care about how their decision will impact others; therefore, you might want to show the benefits of your product, service, or idea and how others will be impacted.

Don’t take rejection personally
One of my biggest pain points was obtaining the executive’s time whenever I had to present key findings and recommendations to them. There were several times in which I would set up a meeting with executives only to learn when I stepped in that it was being delayed or canceled altogether. At first, I took it very personally and felt like my time was not valued. I grew to understand that wasn’t the case. Executives are some of the busiest people leading an environment where things are constantly changing. Therefore, you will need to pivot now and then. If you find yourself in a similar situation my best advice is to be flexible. If you know that a lot is going on at the company, one best practice is when setting up the initial meeting look for alternate times on the off chance they need to reschedule.

Often, I went into a presentation feeling good about everything only to find out the executives weren’t going to go with my idea. After leaving those meetings I would spend hours, sometimes days wondering what I did wrong and what was it about my idea that they did not like. I soon learned that I was taking things too personally. It was not that I did anything wrong or that they didn’t like my idea, instead, they simply decided to go in a different direction. Sometimes those decisions are made before you even walk into the meeting.

Keep in mind that your idea, product, or service might not be what they are looking for and that is okay. We all face thousands of decisions a day. Various internet sources suggest that as adults we make over thirty-five thousand decisions a day. Therefore, we should expect that executives have several options and decisions to make each day. While you feel that your idea, product, or service is the best thing since sliced bread it does not mean that in their minds that there isn’t something better. Therefore, keep in mind that while your idea, product, or service might not seem important today it might be important and needed tomorrow.

In closing, not all executives are the same. Some might be harsh, like the CO whose car I hit when I was in the Navy. But looking back, I’d guess that he was having a bad day before I ran into him, and the car incident was just the icing on the cake. Some executives will be kind and approachable and some might be better at playing Texas Hold’em than others. When you are asked to get in front of the C-Suite, keep in mind that while all executives seem very different from one another, at the end of the day, they are all human. These have been some tips on growing relationships with the c-suite from my experience and research. There are many other best practices available, and these can be realized simply by reaching out to your peers or learning from your own experiences.

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