When we’re coaching clients, one of the most common questions that we receive is about how to interact with the C-Suite at a company. How does a business continuity, crisis management, or security professional communicate with senior executives day to day – and when it’s time to sell the program?
In this week’s episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser shares his personal experiences with C-Suite interactions, touching everything from interviews, communicating during a crisis, and the elevator speech.
Hi folks, Bryan Strawser, Principal and CEO at Bryghtath, and welcome back to the Managing Uncertainty podcast.
This week, I want to talk about communicating to senior executives, how to really talk to your CEO, your C suite, your board members, kind of that whole upper echelon of your organization.
My first, I had a number of encounters, I worked for a large Fortune 50 company for about 21 years, I had a number of encounters with senior leaders. Then eventually I got to the point where I was interviewing with them in order to obtain that next role or promotion. My first interview with one of our senior executives at that company back in 2009, once we got past the pleasantries, and of course, we knew each other. I had worked in his organization for some time.
He drops this bomb of a question on me. Bryan, given what you know about our current global operations and our plans for the next few years, how would you currently characterize our risk exposure from a continuity perspective, and what do you think we should change strategically during your tenure in this role?
Of course, I immediately kind of crapped my pants and I was like, oh God, what did I get myself into? Then I took a deep breath and kind of rolled into my answer for this question, which I kind of anticipated a similar question.
When I talk to folks about what keeps them up at night about interacting with their C suite, I hear some common things. I hear concerns about not being prepared, about not knowing the answer to a question, about being unable to get the message across because we don’t speak the same language. We’re not thinking about the same things, and I also get the concern about their reaction. What happens if my point of view gets challenged and what does that mean?
There’s a lot of challenges. There’s a lot of things here to really think through. The challenges I think that folks are dealing with going into these conversations with the C suite, the first is about jargon. If you think about the spaces that we work in, global security, enterprise risk, crisis management, crisis communications, business continuity, disaster recovery, there’s a lot of jargon.
There’s a lot of specialty in what we do, and we don’t always know how to communicate that to people that are not in our industry, that are not in our space but I’m going to tell you that that’s one of the critical skills as a leader in this area that you’re going to have to figure out how you make that work for yourself, because you eventually become the leader in your organization for the things that you do and you’re that interface. You’re the interface between the leadership of the organization and your function, and understanding how to communicate without using that jargon and provide simple explanations for the things that your team does, that you do, will be critical to your success.
Another challenge is just the lack of organizational alignment like folks don’t know what you do and they don’t know, they, therefore, they don’t know how to interact. You may not know what level of detail to communicate. I’ve seen folks go to these meetings where they’re just not prepared or the relationship isn’t there, that the trust or the ability to build a relationship there isn’t there or there are personal and organizational credibility challenges that are going to make this conversation more difficult than it should be. Then there’s the last one, and this was always my challenge is I was just afraid. I was just afraid about what that conversation was going to look like, and that I would screw it up, and that really made me nervous about going into that.
Let’s talk a little bit about that organizational alignment strategy question. Even in advance of these conversations, your team strategy, it has to ladder up to the organization’s overall business objectives and risk. You have to be perceived as delivering something that’s valuable to the business and helps the business strategy deliver. It helps them achieve the goals they’ve set for those strategies. You want to avoid field-specific terminology by talking about BIAs and BCPs and DR plans and RTOs and ignore that stuff. Use plain language explanation for things. Even prior to this, never miss an opportunity to demonstrate and explain the alignment of your team and your business against the overall business. For example, one of my responsibilities at my previous employer was the Global Security Operations Center. It was called the Corporate Command Center. I never passed up an opportunity to explain it, to bring people in and kind of overwhelm them with here’s the technology and the strategy and how it works together and how it makes us better, how we take care of our team.
Those were very valuable tools for me to spend into the credibility bank with senior leaders because the team was doing a great job and it was easy to see the alignment to the business, so when I came back and I was having a conversation about I need $12 million for recovery strategy to support my disaster recovery partners, well, I had that credibility because I’d earned it through the Corporate Command Center and the services that they delivered.
Another thing that I like folks to do prior to these meetings when you’re not confident about these senior leader interactions is confidence building exercises, to really do some things that help you become more confident in your self-presentation, style, the words that you choose to use and how you choose to influence folks. I think confidence is most often gained through training and applying that training through experience. You can start with things like Toastmasters but you can also look at local conferences and industry group meetings or internal company forums where you can speak and ask people to watch you and seek feedback from them and keep a journal of that feedback and then over time, look for trends and react to that. You can also look for ways to engage in a safe environment. Talk to your leader about finding those situations where you’re in a place where you’re operating from a position of strength and comfort and you’re able to demonstrate, even if it’s just for yourself what that strong personal style and level of confidence looks like.
I think those are very helpful in building your own confidence going into these meetings, and you can go further, you can find an executive coach that specializes in helping folks develop presence in communication and you can seek internal and external mentors that can help provide ongoing feedback, but those are some areas in which to build some of those things.
Another thing to consider as you think about this interaction with the C suite is what the C suite says about these kinds of discussions with you. What are they looking for? I’ve talked to a number of CEOs as a consultant about this, and here are the most common things that I hear. Stop presenting to me and have a conversation with me. Tell me what I don’t already know. Tell me what I need to do. Less content is more. Please just get to the effing point, and it’s not about the process in my level. I don’t care about the process. I want to hear about the strategy. I want to know how I get there and I want to know what I need to do in order to get there.
This is what they’re thinking as people are talking with them. You should be prepared in these meetings with senior executives for frequent and regular interruptions. I think you will get insightful and challenging questions. The two most common questions that I get all the time are okay, compare us to other similar organizations, what are we doing versus what they’re doing? Should we be doing more of that or is there something else that we should be doing? The second is really a question about your own connectivity in the industry, and that is who do you talk to? Who do you talk to at other companies?
One, they’re looking to see if you’re connected, like do you really have a good grasp of where your company sits versus other companies that are similar? Second, are you looking outside of the organization for ideas? Are you growing as that kind of professional?
Then lastly, as always, you should expect challenges around your conclusions and your recommendations. They’re not just going to take it at face value, they’re going to want to probe around and see if you’ve really done your homework.
Some ways that you can prepare for these meetings, I would encourage you to think about like a three or five-minute presentation, or three or five minutes of content for every 15 minutes that you’re going to have with a senior executive. The rest of that conversation, the rest of that time should be a conversation. It will be their questions and your back and forth and the discussions. You want a good example of what this looks or feels like, go to the U.S. Supreme Court website and listen to the oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court.
Lawyers arguing before the court get about a minute or two to get to the point, and then the nine justices start asking questions, and then it’s off. You never get back to your main point. It is all about the discussion with the justices because everybody read your material. They already know the argument you’re going to make. This is their chance to probe and to interact and to challenge that. I would tell you to think about this like a communications plan. What are the likely challenges from this conversation and what are the two or three bullet points that you’re going to use in that reply?
Then above all, remember three things: be good, be brief, be gone. You want to be well prepared and ready to go. You want to be short and concise and to the point and you want to wrap it up when the conversation is over. If you get a chance to practice and you’ve never done anything like this before, I would encourage you to get a video camera or just use your iPhone or Android device and record yourself having these interactions in a safe setting with a colleague or a peer that you trust to ask questions and give you feedback. I think those are important things that can help you feel more confident when that happens.
Another thing to consider is in these spaces that we all work in and specialize in, there’s going to be bad things that happen and you’re going to be put on the spot in terms of reacting to that. I really think that these are great. This is a great opportunity for you to take advantage of that chaos right after the boom has happened. You will never be in a better place to ask for something than when something has just happened. When these bad things happen, I think one of the challenges is to be the first mover, that you see the problem and you’re building a plan for it and you start walking that plan around and start making that part of the conversation that you’re having.
For example, my boss in my old world did this back in 2008. It was clear that the economy was becoming a challenge and the retail sector, that’s where I worked, was going to be really challenged. He took a look around and said, you know what, sooner or later, someone’s going to come in here and want to cut our budget. At the same time, we had technology that was evolving as a force multiplier that was going to enable us to do some things that we had really never done before and do it easier and do it in a technologically enabled way and maybe we didn’t need the headcount and the resources that we had previously. It was an interesting convergence of a challenge on the horizon and the evolution of technology changing our business model.
He said, let’s go figure this out and we made all of these moves before the economy really tanked and then we weren’t a target for reductions later on. Your strategy has to continue to evolve, and if you’re not the moving force, if you’re not pushing it, then eventually someone’s going to push you and that’s probably going to be pushing you in a way that takes you down a road in terms of your strategy that you don’t want to go now. It’s better to have that constant evolution that’s tied to your business objectives.
When the boom has happened, and the issue is hot, and it’s on their mind in the crisis space or the security space or risk area, then it’s time to push and to move the needle because the interest is there. Think about what that elevator speech looks like, so to speak.
There’s kind of three ways where I think that elevator speech comes into play. For me, it was always one of three things. The CEO wasn’t happy about something and I was somehow responsible or connected to it and we had some chance encounter in the building or in the elevator that led to a brief conversation. The second, and by far the most common one is that there was an evolving situation that was going on and the CEO was looking for an update and wanted to do something around that. Then three, my team had some upcoming project that was going on that was going to require the CEO’s approval for headcount or capital, and they were looking for an update, they wanted to know more, or it might be as simple as hey, I saw on the capital review committee, I saw you’re on the agenda for XYZ. That was his way of opening the door for a conversation most likely because he had questions or it was just a way to kind of pre-sell what was going on on my part, but it was something I always wanted to take advantage of when the moment was there.
My second interview with a senior executive, by the way, three years after the other one was, was quite enlightening. It was, hey Bryan, I don’t really understand why we need all this business continuity crap anyway. What’s it really gaining us? That was just a challenge and the challenge came about because he was reading the Wall Street Journal that morning and there was an article about the docks, about shipping ports in China and some exclusive deals that one of our competitors had made and he wanted to know why it wasn’t us but he also wanted to see if I was up on current events. I, of course, had read the Wall Street Journal that morning, I had made the connection instantly and was able to explain that, well actually these deals are not that exclusive. We’ve had one much longer than they have for continuity purposes and here’s how that works, et cetera and kind of ran through that.
My point in all of this is, preparation is key. Keeping up on current events is important and really being able to remember that at the crux of this is your ability to be good, be brief, and be gone when you’re interacting with your senior executives.
That’s it for this edition of the Managing Uncertainty podcast. We’ll be back next week with another episode.