Interacting with the C-Suite

I have worked for a lot of companies over the years. Everything from one person start-ups to large multi-national corporations, and everything in between. I love the variety of people I encounter, the interesting projects and finding solutions to the challenges these businesses face. Surprising, most businesses have the same challenges, whether they are small or huge. The leaders of these companies are also interested in the exact same thing, growing their business.

When working for large businesses, I noticed people were afraid to give voice to concerns or ideas they had to those higher up on the food chain, and especially those in the C-suite. They would say things like, “She is the CFO, so she already knows this,” or “He is too busy to worry about these things.” What they did not understand is that management relies on those around them to provide them with information and ideas. They are busy, but they are never too busy to listen to go ideas.

When speaking with someone like a CEO, there are few things to keep in mind. They want you cut to the chase. Every organization has its little problems, but the C-suite is interested only in the big issues. So many people start with insignificant items and try to move their way to the big issue. With a C-level manager, think in reverse. If you are doing a presentation, start from the end and work your way to the beginning. I did this with a PowerPoint presentation for a CEO of a rather well-known software development company in Redmond, Washington. That was perhaps my best presentation ever.

Anyone in any significant position in a business is interested in getting the truth. Sometimes it is difficult to provide that. After all, your worried about your job, or your budget, or just impressing the boss. Trust me, you will get far more respect for being fully open and honest about issues and proposals than otherwise. As a consultant for a major East Coast bank, I provided some unpleasant news to several vice presidents. My presentation had been heavily edited by the director that hired me, but when a direct question about a sensitive issue came from one VP I answered it directly. Literally gasps came from half the people in the room. The VP simply nodded and said thanks, and motioned for the rest of the presentation.

After the presentation, my director stomped out of the meeting and as she passed she told me, “We won’t need your services after today.” I did not say anything, though I thought she misread the situation. Everyone was so afraid to come forward with the real problem that everything the VP tried was not fixing his bottom line. After that presentation, he knew what the real issue was. They increased funding substantially and hired three consultancies to help them, one of which was mine.

Not everything is so dramatic, of course. Often it is just speaking directly about issues and plans, offering up thoughtful and constructive critiques. Nothing may come of it right away, but in the mind of the CFO you will be the one whose judgement she trusts. You will build a reputation for being honest and direct. Just avoid being complaining. The C-suite is interested in constructive critiques, not criticism or bitching.

Remember, everyone from the CEO on down is a real person. They have feeling and emotions just like everyone else. In the right place, you should treat them just like everyone else too. I say hello to the CEO, stop and chat if I am near his office, and email an article if I think it will be useful. Always remain professional and always know the right time and place for chit-chat. These people are busy, and they do not always have the time to have a conversation, though saying hello is never a problem. Keep email communication to those things that are important or truly useful, and indicate when something is a low priority to help them know they can come back to it later if needed.

One of the best CEOs I have ever had the pleasure of working with managed several billion dollars in commercial real estate properties on the East Coast. He never had time to meet with me during the day, so our meetings were always in the evenings around 9pm for me and midnight for him. He would always tell me to grab a glass of wine before we started. Those meetings were more like conversations because I understood that he was a real person and treated him as such, yet still captured the important business needs from our calls. Even though half the call might be about his family or us joking about raising my fees so I about invest into one of his real estate funds (I lacked the $10 million to get in, and even the $5 million exception he would grant me), the next day he would have an email recap of the important points and business meetings remained professional.

Managers and directors, C-level or otherwise, are real people. They are busy, but they are happy to have someone say hello and even chat with them about the whether when the have the time. They are looking for direct answers to questions just as much as they want honest assessments. The truth is critical to helping them make the right decision. They are not looking for complaints or criticism, they want to know the issue and they want to hear what your recommendations are. Provide that and you will develop a reputation as someone they can trust and rely on.

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