How to Connect with the C-Suite
CEOs and others in the C-Suite make or break careers. This article begins a short series designed to help you connect with C-Level leaders.
The further away from the C-Suite you are the further away you should stay.
The first thing Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup, said when I asked for his insight was, “This is dangerous territory.” He listed three potential dangers of trying too hard to connect with the C-Suite.
- Playing people. Manipulating relationships ends relationships, quickly.
- Alienating peers. They’ll wonder if you’re using them.
- Distrustful subordinates who question your motives. Doug didn’t say you’ll be viewed as a brownnoser but I will.
Doug and everyone else I interviewed said, “Understand the corporate culture.” John Bell, former CEO of Jacobs Suchard (Kraft, Nabob), put it this way, “It depends on the leader.”
For example, Conant wrote thousands of handwritten notes to Campbell’s employees. If I worked for Doug, I’d write notes to him and other employees.
Most C-Suite leaders are closed. Author and consultant, John Spence said, “CEOs already have personal relationships. Familiarity is not good. Keep a respectful distance Know your place.” I’m not sure what percentage of CEOs are closed. Does 98% sound about right? It’s usually a matter of necessity.
John Bell reminded me of the exceptional cofounder of Costco, Jim Sinegal. Jim sits in an office without walls and wants to know people’s names; they print them on everyone’s shirts. He also visited all Costco stores every year (580 in 2011).
More tomorrow and thanks to (Listed in order of their interview):
What’s dangerous about trying to connect with C-level leaders?
Tips for connecting?
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Thanks Dan. We can all see when someone is trying too hard, but great to have it expressed and confirmed! Jim Singel is definitely my kind of CEO. Love this first in the series and can’t wait for the rest of the “from the horses mouth” insights. Nice one Dan. 🙂
Thanks for the good word. Sinegal’s story is incredible. I didn’t have room in the post to mention it but the Washington Post reported in Sept. 2011 that Costco earned 56 billion and Sam’s Club 50 billion.
I’m excited about this series. I think it will be very helpful.
I’d suggest waiting for the points of connection that will eventually present themselves. Some day a C-suite exec will ask you for data or want you to help with a project. When he/she initiates, most of the barriers are down.
When the time comes, be professional and make the most of it. The greatest value you can bring a busy exec is to present him/her with information that is complete enough to make a decision on, yet packaged to be easily digestible. The key: time is precious to these people so don’t waste it, either by making them wade through reams of material or by making them come back to you for more.
If they find you to be an effective partner, they will come back.
By the way, you don’t have to tell a C-level exec about you. He/she already has access to anything the HR department and your boss knows about about you. Self-promoting will likely not be received well.
The danger: C-level execs have lots of choices and not much time. If you seem needy or self-serving, odds are you’ll be written off no matter what your skills.
Thanks for the organic approach. BTW, I think you and Doug C. align on that point. Don’t push it.
You’ve hit on several points I’ll be offering in future posts.
You enrich us all.
You’re abs right – it’s dangerous. I’ve seen guys rise like shooting stars, get it into their heads, play it wrong and fall like spent casings.
I’ve seen fast up leading to crash and burn on several occasions.
The greatest danger about connecting with c level leaders is to know them. You should know what they believe in. How do they define success? I am sure; it depends upon person to person and industry to industry. Knowing the career record of leader will help to connect with them. However, maintaining safe distance is better strategy. But almost all leaders need and seek respect. If they feel that you respect them, they will accept it. They also seek public appreciation and recognition.
I also think the intention to connect with c level leader determines relationship. When you make relationship to get something, I am afraid whether you can make relationship. But when you seek their suggestion without expecting their favor, it could help to make relationship.
I think the tips for connecting is knowing their career journey, means adopted to achieve position and vision of leader to create platform for organization and people.
Know them…and adapt.
Thank you for bringing up something important. CEOs have egos like everyone…They enjoy feeling respected.
There is a difference between respect and put on a pedestal.
You consistently offer practical and actionable insights. Your students are fortunate to have you.
I agree we need to understand the culture of our organization.
But I am a big believer in everyone can make a difference ……. with everyone they meet and in whatever position they are in.
I have read what Doug says, and I admire him greatly- but we have to be conscious of our intention and forge forth with our attention.
John Spence says, Most C-Suite Leaders are closed …
well that is an excuse for them staying in their ivory tower.
and I feel its unacceptable…….
It does not take much to connect with people.
It does not take much to care for people.
It does not take much to make time to listen
If we continue to accept what is unacceptable we will just continue getting the same C- Level Leaders.
I believe that no matter what position you hold, no matter what job you have.
We need to stop saying we are too busy to connect!
we need to stop feeling we are to busy to care !
and we need to stop showing we are too busy to listen!
Get down from the ivory tower and start celebrating your humanness.
The human heart wants to feel connected and understood.
Who will you connect with today that you have not connected with in awhile.
Lead From Within
Lolly, I agree with you. I’m hopeful that the next general of C-level leaders will be better, but there are still some old-school execs that see things differently. I’d guess those are the ones who don’t read Leadership Freak.
For the C- Level Leader who claims he needs to be in the ivory tower to be effective….
I have this to say…
..you are the ones who are lonely and feel isolated.
….you are the ones that are baffled why you are not connecting to your teams.
…. you are the ones that are confused by your disconnection.
But the great news is…YOU are also the ones who are starting to hire me (secretly) to help you.
There is hope yet…
Lead From Within
I completely agree with you from the perspective of what constitutes effective leadership going forward.
I think Dan’s series is asking how employees can best make the needed connections when they don’t have an open C-Suite. It’s a good question – faced with a culture that isn’t ideal, how can emerging leaders put their best foot forward?
Thanks for what you do!
And thanks for a provocative post, Dan 🙂
I think the bottom line is authenticity and quality work. People sniff out phonies.
I love it when you jump in. I felt your passion from the beginning!
Thanks for stirring the pot.
I’m honored you joined in,
I think it is best to stay near-sighted. How are your connections with the people immediately around you? If you have longterm goals of climbing the corporate ladder, I cannot imagine it works well to try to jump rungs. That next person above you, those peers right around you, and your immediate subordinates should take up enough energy when you pursue the right relationships with them. When you are needed for that next step…access to that next room of people will be legitimately granted. Playing politics is a risky game.
Wise counsel that others agree with… stay tuned on future posts and you’ll see what I mean.
Your wisdom keeps shining through.
I land in between you and Lolly, you have an obligation to those who receive the organization’s services to be real and provide perspective. What leaders know to be fact (data drives decisions) may be dated based on when they did the direct service or know of the direct service. So leaders know, but they don’t know in real time.
At the same time, your event horizon is not their event horizon.
While I may be intricately and in excruciatingly details involved in day to day operations with all sorts of sidecars and parking lot items, they need the cliff notes (wow, am I dated) of what the issues are…so unlike this sentence. Be succinct, be focused, be honest.
Often, if I have what may be a significant course correction, I produce two documents, the short version and long version. The short version is a SBAR of sorts, Al knows these. Situation, Background, Assessment and Recommendations. Done in just a few sentences. The long version has the backing details and data if/when needed and rationale for the change. And again, your event horizon is not theirs, so while it makes infinite sense and savings to make the change now…it may take weeks, months, years. All seeds germinate at different rates, so too change.
Looking forward to the series Dan, it should be excellent. To twist a Nor’eastern activity, this subject should be a great maple tree to tap, rich syrup on the way…note I did not say ‘sap’. 😉 Make it an excellent week all!
I thought I was going to miss one of those metaphorical/philosophical bits of wisdom you usually dispense until I got to the last paragraph… OH my word! You kill me! 🙂
I may steal the “cliff notes version” for future posts. Bingo!
Be ready for the short and/or long version is SWEET.
I’m thankful for you,
Hi Doc, Yep know about the SBAR and I like you am in the middle but honestly I lean a lot more towards Lolly and Sinegal. I have an open door policy and everyone knows it. As I have stated before on paper the Org chart is just that “on paper.” We function in a much more “flatter” environment. Although the managers report to the COO, all of us in the Executive Team try as much as possible to have no walls among us. When we have our Leadership Meetings on Tuesdays we divy out the work and the boundaries are blurred as we optimize functionality and spread the work out as evenly as possible. The rumor mill has me pegged as part time CFO since the Docs migrate to me to discuss financials. My CFO is great but too smart for all of us fiscally challenged so we feel better hanging together, it is like dumb and dumber and everyone is ok with that. We have slowly transformed our culture so that everyone is valued and we do different jobs. We often say at our staff meetings that we are all smart just smart at different things. In todays Global economy and the rise of the conceptual age Organizations that don’t put emplyees first are in for a rude awakening. The Copernican days are numbered and Ptolemy is making a comeback so those Ivory Tower folks as Lolly says better wake up and smell the roses.
I find a lot of wisdom in Greg’s and Lolly’s comments this morning.
From their thoughts I’m lead to the insight that the best C-suite execs are those who are not afraid to demonstrate their humanity. It takes courage and self-awareness to do this, and the payoff for it is huge.
Your insight is worth repeating and remembering………
The best C-suite execs are those who are not afraid to demonstrate their humanity. It takes courage and self-awareness to do this, and the payoff for it is huge.
Lead From Within
What Lolly said!
I work with CEOs every day and have for 20 years. They range in personality type from kind and thoughtful to outspoken and manipulative, not unlike any group of people you meet. Most are driven people even if that drive is cleverly disguised.
What I love the most is when I find a CEO whose real drive is centered around people (I usually end up working with this type for 2-3 years). One I worked with extensively told me she was driven by “creating a better life for the people who worked for her.” And that is what she did by running her business is a way that fully engaged every employee.
It’s funny you wrote this today because I was wanting to respond to your post about insecure bosses. I think all CEOs are insecure — but the good ones are insecure in a healthy way. They hunger to learn and strive to make a difference.
I had a peer once who was as insecure as any leader I have ever met. He used fear and intimidation and I made the mistake of outperforming him. When he became clear he had won the board over and was headed for CEO, I promptly departed.
In my experience, most CEOs are great people.
I love your statement “I think all CEOs are insecure – but the good ones are insecure in a healthy way.” KaChing!
You hear things like, they might find out I’m not as good as they think. 🙂
Thanks also for an illustration of the difficult point of move up, over or out. I think everyone needs to hear that.
You help and honor us with your insights.
Here’s a shortcut to trying to decide if you can build a relationship with your CEO. Look at the company organization chart. If it is tall/deep, it is going to be very difficult to even get to the CEO let alone create a bond. A deep organization chart tends to indicate a CEO who has chosen to insulate himself from everyone other than his/her closest advisors. Set your sights two or three (maximum) levels from your own. You will have impact; you will get noticed. But even if you have an audience with the CEO, your chance of gaining influence is small because the CEO has designed it that way.
On the other hand, if your organizational chart is flat/shallow, go for it. I work in an organization with only three levels on its organization chart. It is designed for the leaders at the highest level to be able to communicate, influence, and learn from all levels of the organization. Leaders at these organizations welcome the contact and your opportunities for connection will be much greater.
Excellent point Bonnie! That could be a first step in knowing your organization
Interesting way of looking at an organization chart.
You help readers evaluate organizations from an opportunity point of view. Very cool.
We are fortunate you stopped in today.
I am fortunate to have a ceo that is hands on every day. He is Chad Schapiro of OurGV.Com. He rolls up his sleeves and gets to work with the rest of us.
Thanks for giving a shout out to your CEO… Well done.
Create the reason the C-Suite folks would become interested in you and magic will happen. Pay close attention to the initial connections, they will likely not be from the C-Suite directly, but through an emissary of the C-Suite. Control the hat size of your head without Velcro.
Give them a reason to care that you’re there. I’m going to use that in the future. Man I’m glad you stopped in to leave that nugget.
What’s dangerous about trying to connect with C-level leaders?
Tips for connecting?
I think one of the dangers of trying to connect with C-level leaders is being misinterpreted by your peers (and/or the leaders) as being insincere. I am also left wondering, between the previous post about insecure leaders and today’s, how much value there really is in trying to figure out what makes the C-level leader “tick.” If the organization as a while is managing to come together to achieve its mission/values/vision, maybe things are as they should be and there’s no need to force relationships.
At our organization, logistics of our town make it necessary for one of us to drive one of our leadership staff about 5 minutes to the Capitol occasionally (there’s no parking there, etc. etc.) Over the years, the 5-10 minute trips in the car have yielded some better conversations for me than a formal meeting would have.
You left us another great story with punch. Drive the CEO somewhere… good stuff.
You fill a special place in the conversation with your practical illustrations of important principles.