Written by Sally Williamson Tuesday, September 18 2012
It’s inevitable. Whether you’re in sales, finance, technology or operations, at some point, you’re going to find yourself sitting across the desk from a senior-level executive. Many managers say it’s one of the toughest conversations you’ll face. If you’ve been there, you may relate to Bud Fox in the movie “Wall Street” when he finally gets his big opportunity with Gordon Gecko. Everything he planned to say doesn’t seem to work. Every adjustment he tries to make falls flat, and ultimately, his “value add” recommendation ends up in the shredder.
And yet, our coaching on executive personalities is that they are a fairly predictable audience. Given a choice, a conversation with the C-Level executive is often the most productive regarding key objectives and strategies. That is, assuming you’re prepared to state a clear takeaway and to lead a high-level conversation.
So, why are top executives predictable? They’re predictable because every executive enters a meeting with two perspectives. First, are you credible and confident enough to be here? Executive presence is an impression that is set quickly and powerfully. Second, can you add value to my business or solve my need? A top executive wants to know if you can add value. In fact, studies show that executives turn away and tune out confident and credible managers who don’t bring value to the table. But predictable doesn’t make an executive-level meeting easy. Most executives are impatient and eager to keep conversations on schedule and on track. That can feel daunting to a manager unless you’re prepared with three concepts that executives listen for in meetings.
Three Elements of an Executive Meeting
- MESSAGE: Every listener wants to know what your point is, but the executive listener demands it. A well-intentioned meeting can be derailed in under a minute if a clear takeaway isn’t stated up front. Great messages tell an executive what you want to accomplish and what you need from them in order to do it.
- DIRECTION: A meeting needs a direction. Once the executive hears the message, he or she will want to know how you plan to prove it. This is not a listener who wants to be led to a big surprise or discovery. Tell them up front what you want to accomplish and then give them a road map so that they’ll buy into the direction of the conversation.
- IMPACT: A great message has an impact. Success from an executive-level meeting is generally action. The executive agrees, believes, supports, approves, etc. While executives will most likely work themselves out of next steps, it’s easier to approve something that has a built-in measure.
I’ve coached many managers on the strategies above, and these three elements of the conversation help a manager deliver value and/or solutions in the conversation. But how do you deliver on confidence and credibility? Most of those impressions reside in your personal presence and your ability to present yourself well. That is a topic I’ve written a lot about! Watch for three common mistakes that managers tend to make with this audience.
Missteps of Managers:
- TALKING HEAD: Managers view an executive conversation as an opportunity to tell an executive everything you know. So, you either talk too much or get nervous about not knowing enough and say too little. Either way, don’t let yourself get consumed with having all the answers. Executives say they value more the manager who asks the right questions versus the manager who gives the right answers. Why? Because they are more intrigued with how you think than with what you know.
- INTIMIDATION FACTOR: An executive is usually direct and to the point. Their candidness can feel a little blunt. It isn’t personal, but it can be unsettling. Be careful not to defer to an intimidating persona. They want to see that you’re comfortable with them and that you feel confident in an open-ended discussion and debate rather than feeling as if every conversation has to draw to a conclusion.
- PICK UP THE PACE: Impatience is at a premium in these meetings. It may take a very settled and grounded style to pull this very busy executive into your message. Stay focused, use pace and pause to engage an executive early. A very busy executive unintentionally or even intentionally will rush you and easily frazzle you. Don’t get sucked into speeding up your rate of speech. Think Bud Fox and Gordon Gecko. Stay the course and deliver your thoughts clearly, succinctly and confidently.
When managers talk about executive conversations, they are often discussing a survival strategy. By using the concepts above, you can develop an impact strategy. Ultimately, this is a conversation that counts. The measurable impact is that one well-planned conversation earns you the opportunity to have many more.
I look forward to sharing more about Leading Executive Conversations during the upcoming Womenetics Academy event on September 19 at The Buckhead Club in Atlanta. Click here to learn more.
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Sally Williamson, author of “The Hidden Factor: Executive Presence,” is the industry leader for improving the impact of spoken communication and executive presence. As president and founder of Sally Williamson & Associates, she specializes in executive coaching and developing custom workshops. She is a 30-year veteran of developing key messages and coaching for professionals to improve their executive presence and overall impressions.