If you listen to popular internet advice, you might become convinced that talking to executives is no different from communicating with other people in your life. After all, executives are humans too! They have hopes and dreams, fears and concerns, goals to achieve and alliances to build. And so, goes common wisdom, you should just relax and be yourself.
Any time I hear that advice, I think back to the time when I used to work at an international auditing and consulting firm. Our office building had a Starbucks coffee shop on the ground level. During the busiest times at work, it was common courtesy to let the team know you were heading downstairs so that others could add a drink to your order for efficiency’s sake. The partners in charge of the audit would often spend their days in the audit room, and they followed the same Starbucks social protocol.
On the surface, the story so far would support the idea that communicating with executives is the same as communicating with your co-workers. And yet, there was a clear difference. Whenever a partner would generously ask the room, “Would anyone like anything from Starbucks?” the only answer I ever heard was, “Thank you! A coffee, please.” Never did anyone request a “tall soy latte, double espresso, no foam, with caramel sprinkles on top.” If a partner offered to pick up coffee, you got a simple coffee. Period.
Yes, executives are people, too — yet business etiquette clearly sets them apart. And ignoring that reality could be downright damaging to your career. Even inside the most open and flat organizations, the opportunity to speak to a senior executive is rare and valuable. So, how can you use this opportunity in the best way possible?
The answer depends on context.
In short, there are three categories of interactions a professional could have with a senior executive (assuming that the two are not in a direct supervisory relationship). You might be interviewing for an open position, making a presentation or interacting in a social setting. Knowing that, here’s how to talk to senior executives in each of these situations.
Interviewing With CEOs & Other Senior Executives
Any interview is stressful. However, when you are meeting with an executive, the stakes go up exponentially. An invitation to interview with the CEO or a company founder means that your candidacy is being taken seriously. After all, a senior executive’s time is valuable and limited, so not every candidate gets this opportunity.
So what is your best strategy for interviewing with a senior executive?
First, you must prepare. Sometimes you have the benefit of knowing about this interview well in advance, while other times, you might get surprised by a quick meet-and-greet with the CEO at the end of another interview. Either way, solid background knowledge of the company and the open position will come in handy. Do your research, prepare your talking points, bring a few good questions — and you will walk in cool and ready.
Second, don’t panic. Some anxiety is perfectly normal — in fact, it might even help you feel awake and alert! However, if your nerves are getting the best of you, the executive might read that as a sign of insecurity. You might acknowledge that you appreciate the opportunity and are a bit nervous, but be sure to turn your attention back to the value you can add to the company.
Finally, be ready for odd questions. Many senior executives leave traditional interview questions to the hiring manager. Instead, a CEO might use their limited time with you to get a measure of your personality, thinking style, and decision-making. It’s hard to “prepare” for unusual questions because you could never study or predict them all. Just be present to that possibility, take a breath, and roll with it!
Presenting to CEOs & Other Senior Executives
A chance to present to the C-suite is an opportunity to get noticed. Use it well, and you might advance your project, receive funding or get recognized as an emerging leader. Here are three best practices for presenting to senior executives:
Step one: Prepare. Get clear on what you want to accomplish. Too many professionals err on the side of being deferential and waste their chances to make a recommendation or a request. There’s no value in shoving your opinion down the CEO’s throat, but not having any opinion at all won’t help your cause either. Pull together all the background material you might need, build a compelling case, talk to those who can help you make a bullet-proof presentation and practice your delivery. All of those actions will help you feel ready and confident.
Step two: Be ready for the presentation plan to go sideways. You might find out that the CEO only has five minutes available when you had planned on 30. Or perhaps an executive might be late to the meeting and you will need a way to quickly bring them up to speed without missing a beat. Or maybe the PowerPoint projector refuses to cooperate, and you find yourself having to present from memory. Instead of just worrying about those scenarios, brainstorm them — then map out your response plan. That way, an obstacle might just turn into your chance to impress the leadership and shine.
Step three: Remember that the executive team functions on a different timeline from you. Don’t take a delay or a request to reschedule personally. Chances are, it’s really not about you. Getting defensive or offended is usually counterproductive.
Interacting With CEOs & Senior Executives in a Social Setting
Ironically, interacting with executives in a relaxed social setting is something that makes most professionals extremely nervous. With no meeting agenda or resume in hand, what do you do? What do you say? Here are a few best practices that will allow you to navigate these social interactions with ease and grace.
Remember that professionalism matters. If you’re at a happy hour, everyone might be a few drinks deep and sharing some good laughs, but don’t use it as your license to do the things that will make you blush in embarrassment the next day. Social context comes and goes, but in the end, the executive will remember these interactions when it’s time to award funding for a new project or make promotion decisions.
Bring a few icebreakers to help you start conversations, staying away from controversial or polarizing topics like politics and religion. Instead, think of a question you could ask or an observation you could share. Vacation plans, sports, local attractions or food are usually safe topics. Switch on your emotional intelligence radar and read the situation carefully. Keep talking if the executive seems interested. Wrap it up and disengage if the timing isn’t right. There’s no benefit to going on about your pet project if the other person isn’t really listening!
Finally, whenever at a loss for what to say, ask for advice. Maybe there is a specific challenge you are struggling with, or perhaps it’s general curiosity about best practices, career path, books or other resources. You will be amazed at how generous many leaders are with their time and experience!