Speaking C-Suite, the Language of Career Advancement
How do you become a confidant to your C-level executives? By learning their unique language and giving them only the information they need. It sounds easy, but as three longtime ASAP members and senior alliance professionals laid it out in last week’s webinar, “Speaking C-Suite: Becoming a Trusted Alliance Advisor to Your Senior Executives,” it takes a lot of preparation, time, and gumption.
Just Ask: “How Can I Help You?”
Time is precious for an organization’s most senior leaders. You generally won’t get enough of theirs to relay every little detail about your alliance—nor should you. You need to get to your ask quickly and bolster your case by explaining how the initiative or topic at hand impacts their frontline priorities. Drew Quinlan, CA-AM, vice president of business development at fleet management software company Motive, recommended finding out which two or three specific data points each executive cares about the most and let that guide your conversation.
“You need to understand who the C-staff are and what they care about, and then most importantly, how your efforts and the relationships you are managing, or the groups of relationships you are managing, are impacting the things that they care about the most. You can’t necessarily figure that out on the fly,” he said. “Most C-suite [executives] don’t have time for just receiving an update, nor do they want to just receive an update. Your sharing of information should always be followed with a specific ask. How can they help you help them?”
How do you ascertain what’s top-of-mind to your leaders? Just ask them, said Sally Wang, group vice president for global alliances and partnerships at International SOS.
“How can your alliance help their priorities and objectives? You may need to do some homework. You may need to ask the person directly. If there’s a willingness to converge [your individual alliance initiatives with bigger-picture company goals] and to assist, I think you’ll have a better chance to be successful.”
Wang agreed with Quinlan’s opening thoughts and added that the nature of each of the C-suite roles can further illuminate what is most important to the person you are about to interact with.
“What is the person’s role? What are the risks the role cares about the most?” she said. “When you have a head of sales, they may be asking you about leads, incentive plans, margins, [while] the CFO is more on the financial side.”
Land of the C-Suite, Home of the Brave
What you say is critical. How you convey it is equally important, which is why you have to tailor delivery of that vital information to each executive’s unique learning style.
“What is their communication preference? Do they want something handed to them and then you’re going to talk it through it with them and highlight key aspects of interaction and engagement with them? Or do they want to have a more conversation-style interaction?” said Katherine Kendrick, CSAP, executive director and head of alliance management at Jazz Pharmaceuticals. “Usually the C-suite wants you to be brief, be bright, and be gone because they’re on to the next big topic.”
Later in the discussion, Wang had a recommendation: When you are giving bad news, which over time is an inevitability in the world of business, don’t “shy away from that [difficult] discussion. Do it in a one-on-one setting. Don’t put them in front of a whole group because the personality and dynamic changes [when] these individuals are in a group setting,” she said. “I would encourage you to be brave and embrace that conversation and be honest and authentic about it.”
This prompted our own Michael J. Burke, ASAP’s senior editorial consultant, who was moderating the discussion, to quip, “To the phrase, ‘Be brief, be bright, and be gone,’ we need to add ‘be brave’?”
First Dates, Roadmaps, Walkaround Decks, and Cracking the Code with Strong Personalities
The panelists had a number of other great tips.
- On how to prep the CEO for that all-important first meeting with a new partner:
Wang recommended taking a “prescriptive approach.” “That first date, that play date, is really important. Take the time to provide the briefing, and offer the information concisely—boil it down to what to watch out for, what are the topics to avoid, what to discuss,” she said.
“The prevention of an executive from stepping in it, so to speak, at a partner meeting is really part of our job,” added Kendrick.
- On how to gently tell your ultimate boss that you’re understaffed:
Throughout the webinar, Quinlan emphasized that you need to tell executives something “seven different times in seven different ways” to ingrain a key point into their consciousness. This tactic is particularly handy in this situation.
“Every C-staff member has goals and expectations that the board delivers to them, and they fall short sometimes like we do. If I can align myself with a critical priority that they have…then I will continually repeat to them, ‘I can help solve for that if I was able to provide this or a resource here,’” he said, before offering a subtler, slyer way to go about making the point. “Yeah, I really want to help solve that problem, but we’re at 100 percent utilization, so what should I stop doing?”
- On tools for sharpening your elevator pitch to the C-suite:
Wang urged listeners to develop a “partnership roadmap,” which is akin to a product roadmap.
“Align with your C-suite around that roadmap—these are the areas we are looking at, this is the audience we are trying to address,” she said.
Quinlan utilizes a “walkaround deck,” two to three key slides summarizing the value the alliance organization brings to the company. This is especially valuable when you’re chatting with a CEO, CFO, CMO, or CIO casually or find yourself in a position where you have to make your pitch on the fly—it’s just as important to optimize their time in these informal settings.
“This doesn’t just happen in scheduled meetings. This can happen anytime, at any moment, anywhere,” he said.
- On dealing with difficult or strong personalities:
“The natural tendency is to try and interact less with them because it’s not very enjoyable for whatever reason, but the best advice I can give is, dig and find out what matters to them, offer it, and bring them closer,” said Kendrick.
“Find out who has already cracked the code, who they respect, and who they are close to and go build a relationship with that person. There are two key things that can occur: 1) they can put in a good word for you, [or] 2) they can also give advice on how to interact with that person,” said Quinlan.
Heed all of the lessons Quinlan, Wang, and Kendrick bestowed on the audience and apply them consistently over the long haul, and the payoff is almost immeasurable.
“If you’re doing the things we’re talking about well, and you are communicating with the C-staff effectively and appropriately, that’s the outcome. You become that trusted advisor, you get the prioritization and cross-functional resourcing that you need, and you are seen as a critical part of the overall growth of the business,” said Quinlan.