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Friday, January 02, 2009

How to Win the CEO’s Ear and Trust

Should Jane Klaviter switch careers from prompter at the Metropolitan Opera to executive coach, I would strongly recommend her to my clients.

Klaviter sits in a cramped, three-sided box at the edge of the stage and hand-signals or calls out instructions to singers, even divas, who forget lines or miss the pitch. Pointing her finger up says, “sing higher;” down mean “go lower.” Holding her hand up means “stop,” usually because the singer has jumped ahead of the orchestra.

I could have used that last technique when a CEO I worked for was sitting thigh-to-thigh with too many presenters on a low-rise stage at an outdoor dedication ceremony. I saw him about to move his chair backwards for more room, at which point a raised hand might have prevented him from tumbling off the platform, which he did. I quickly passed my resume to the president of the ad agency next to me.

The Met performers trust Klaviter because she has answers, is not intimidated by the powerful, and can prevent public embarrassment. And that’s the same three factors that get CEOs to listen and trust us.

3 ways to get the CEO to listen and trust

Be smart, but not smarter than

You are the best at what you do, right? Did I hear an “amen” or were you choking? If you don’t consider yourself highly proficient – with lots of room for improvement, of course – there’s no need to read further. The CEO may like you personally but not trust you professionally if you are insecure about your know-how.

You will always be trying to prove yourself with him or her. So, figure out what’s causing your uneasiness – it’s probably not a lack of information – by getting help from a mentor, coach, or therapist. I did when I was younger.

Assuming that you’re head-smart confident, equally important is to be street-wise competent. In short, you have to be long on emotional intelligence. And that means, to borrow from Dan Goleman:
  • understanding what the CEO is feeling because you know what you are feeling;
  • keeping the executive calm in stressful situations because you are in control of the facts;
  • broadening the scope of the CEO’s understanding because you are always aware of what is happening throughout the organization.
  • sharpening the CEO’s decision-making ability because you know how to communicate with him so he “gets it.”
All of that is to say that you need to function as a leader who support his/her leader.

There is a caveat, however. You can let your insightful advice flow freely in private with an executive but not always in public. Upstaging an executive in public can makes him/her feel less important, less in charge, and less kindly toward you.

For example, I had a difficult one-on-one discussion with a regional president during which I told him diplomatically that his bullish promotional campaign contradicted the corporate communication initiative I had launched to wake everyone up to the dour financial outlook for the company. I would not have done that in a group meeting.

However, once I participated in a meeting with a CEO, my boss, and outsiders during which I made several comments, judiciously timed I thought, that brought clarity to issues. Afterwards, my boss called me into his office and said that, “sometimes, you can be too intelligent.” It sounded like a compliment. It wasn’t.

Avoid upward delegation
A CEO who is outspoken, command-and-control, or exceptionally smart can be intimidating. That can cripple risk-taking and decision making.

Stand tall. Don’t be bullied into sacrificing your expertise and authority by checking out all your ideas and decisions with the CEO. He delegates to you, not you to him/her.

Don't worry about job security. Think more about integrity and your long-term career than job security. Besides, the CEO may shout but is unlikely to fire you for standing up to him. All he can do is say no and hurt your feelings. Big deal. Over time, he will respect your fortitude.

You have a professional (and ethical?) responsibility to present solutions -- not merely suggestions -- to the senior executive. But do so efficiently. One page with the problem/solution defined in the first paragraph beats a tome. A one-on-one discussion with the CEO beats PowerPoints during a staff meeting where some players waste time posturing.

In my experience with him, Al Rockwell, former CEO of Rockwell International, had an amazing ability to bring out efficient solutions among his advisors. In a meeting I attended with other advisors – lawyers, financial experts, etc. – he briefly described the problem he faced. Then, without an agenda, instructions, or pecking order, each advisor succinctly framed the issue and offered solutions from his area of expertise. At the end of the session, Rockwell extracted the best of the comments and declared the single solution he wanted to pursue. Meeting over.

Prevent embarrassment
A senior executive gets embarrassed when he/she does not know something, does not know someone, or does not know the truth. You can help prevent that awkwardness, first, by disciplining yourself to pay attention to details, even minute details (see Details, Details).

To illustrate, a designer who was related to the CEO of the company where I headed communication recommended a gray speckled paper for the annual report. I was sure the CEO would like it a lot. However, I thwarted that possibility – and potential embarrassment -- by pointing out to the designer that those specks might turn up as decimal points in the wrong places in the financial section. Having the New York Stock Exchange stop trading in your stock because of confusion is not an embarrassment a CEO takes well.

Make sure your CEO knows who will be at a particular event and receives a written one-liner about the key attendees that he/she can read en route. The people he greets with that knowledge will be very impressed, and the CEO will be very pleased with you.

The executive needs to know the truth about a situation. If you play the blame game along with others, you do your boss an injustice, not to mention those whose livelihoods will be affected. Untangle the situation, identify contributors, even malefactors, but, again, advise on a solution that prevents over-reaction and executive embarrassment.

5 specific suggestions
  1. The CEO is your best challenge, not your best friend -- even if he invites you to a party at his home.
  2. When your CEO embellishes or distorts the facts in a presentation and glances at you for a head-nod, avoid eye contact.
  3. Spend more time with the people the CEO wants to influence than with the CEO.
  4. Overloading the CEO with reading materials shows that you don’t understand his/her time constraints.
  5. Don’t take your CEO-linked power seriously. As Bob Dylan sings, be kind to the people you see on the way up because you will see them again on the way down.
Information about Jane Klaviter comes from “She Prompts Opera Stars,” Secrets of New York City, by Marjorie Palmer, pp 19-21, ©2002 by Silver Lining Books.

Credit: Photos by Ed Rombout; photo design by Camagine. I highly recommend both professionals.


Anonymous said...

"Sometimes, you can be too intelligent."

Oh, that brings back memories! I remember a few times, especially at the beginning, when I ran over some toes with powerful thoughts that I hadn't steered correctly.

Thanks for your insight, Richard. Each of your posts is offers new reasons to reevaluate current methods and push for more progress in a place I can control: myself.


Robyn McIntyre said...

Thanks for putting into words some things I've known unconsciously for a long time.

For sure, the one thing my last head honcho hated most was being embarassed by a lack of knowledge.

goooooood girl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Greg Silsby said...

Once again, more valuable guidance than I have found in the far-too-many business books I have read. I can only be grateful that most of them I bought at the Goodwill.