Get What YOU Want from Executives

An Accidental Enemy

Dean was a startup colleague of mine from a few years back. As the Vice President of Alliances he was successful in creating a partner channel that boosted our revenues. I always found him to be smart, engaging, and approachable, which I’m sure contributed in part to his success in building relationships. That’s why I was so surprised one day when he called me with a problem.

“He literally won’t speak to me,” said Dean. Although I had since moved on to my next role, I’m glad he felt comfortable calling me for advice. Apparently in trying to help the organization as well as to help a peer executive, Dean had created a professional enemy on the executive team, possibly permanently. The irony that a person who had developed hundreds of successful organizational alliances had created such a determined enemy dumbfounded me.

Dean explained that in his efforts to recruit new alliance partners, he’d been asking the Product team to invest in developing connectors to third-party platforms. His requests always fell to the bottom of the priority list, so they were rarely addressed in the product. This connectivity was Dean’s #1 priority. Being a motivated and creative leader, Dean found the perfect partner to build connectors. Their references were solid, rates were reasonable, and they could address Dean’s needs while taking low-priority grunt-work off of Engineering’s plate. This was a “win-win” if ever there was one!

He shared the plan with the executive team at the next staff meeting, expecting a warm reception for the idea. Instead, a tornado of questions swirled around the room.

CEO: “We added 15 engineers last quarter. Why can’t they build the interfaces?”

VP of Sales: “Is our platform so complex that we have to go to third party specialists just to integrate it with other applications?”

COO: “Who’s going to manage the partner who does the work?”

CFO: “Whose budget does this come from? Is this already in the expense plan?”

Then the VP of Engineering became extremely defensive, and couldn’t address the pros or cons of Dean’s plan because he had never seen it. The tense meeting concluded, and most of the executives left the room feeling concerned about dysfunction in the team, and wondering if there was a problem in Engineering. That’s when the VP of Engineering decided he would never speak to Dean again. From his perspective, Dean had executed a frontal assault on his leadership, his product and technology, his team, and his process. To him, that was inexcusable.

Executive Empathy

Empathy is something we all practice consciously or subconsciously in our closest personal relationships. But somehow that gets left at home when we head off to work. “Putting yourself in others’ shoes” significantly impacts the way we interact with, react, and respond to others. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell highlights a study that supports this. In a nutshell, patients don’t sue doctors that they like. Doctors who engaged with patients and showed empathy were far less likely to be sued for malpractice, irrespective of other factors like training and education and even whether they were at fault. Empathyworks.

Executive Empathy puts this concept in the context of an executive. And the point isn’t to “Think like anexecutive.” The point is to “Think like each executive.” Every business function has different metrics they manage to. Marketing is primarily measured on metrics like lead volumes and sales pipeline. Finance cares about revenue accounting and forecasting, balance sheet, and cash flow. Services is accountable for revenue from services, margin, consultant utilization and customer satisfaction. So while every executive wants the company to be “successful,” they view problems and opportunities through different lenses because they’re measured differently.

Beyond that, there are natural “conflicting interests” that arise from each executive’s metrics. For example, Sales is accountable for revenue, and in most situations doesn’t care a lot about how much money is spent to generate that revenue, whereas the CFO and CMO operate within fixed budgets and have to be careful about overspending. Add in the fact that each executive has their own “hot buttons,” their own leadership style for example, directive vs. consensus driven. Moreover, every executive has personality and character traits that influence their decision making process.  You can see that executive empathy is complex.

Stephen Covey recommends “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” However, in the fast paced high-tech business environment, people’s  natural tendency is to advocate first and understandsecond, which usually works against their ability to influence executives. Furthermore, they tend to advocate for things from their perspective. While they don’t deliberately ignore others’ perspectives, they don’t seek to understand and empathize either, and that’s a missed opportunity.

If you want to advance in your career, you must be able to influence executives, so executive empathy is essential. In Dean’s case, his lack of executive empathy turned a great idea into professional failure. He could have strengthened his relationship with the VP of Engineering and made them both look like heroes. Instead the result was public embarrassment that left him with an enemy on the executive team.

Nurture, not Nature

The good news is that you don’t need to be born with executive empathy. It’s definitely a learned skill that you can continually refine. This is one of the key elements of our Executive Communicator 2-day workshop. To date, attendee feedback has been unanimously positive. In fact, a CIO said “I would have everyone on my 200 person team go through this training so that they can communicate and effectively influence executive decisions.” Executive communication isn’t something you want to learn in remedialtraining after making a public mistake. And for managers, don’t wait until someone on your team has flamed out in front of an executive audience before making this this important investment in their success… and ultimately yours.

If you have any good stories of a “CLM” (Career Limiting Moment) in front of an executive audience, or insights or highlights to share, please comment below and share this blog with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.


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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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