There was a wonderful point in the CustomerX conference in Boston when a CMO presenter was asked how a customer marketer, with CMO ambitions, could prepare for that role. A good part of her answer revolved around learning the language of executives. Like being in a foreign country, not speaking the “local” language makes it hard to communicate, and hard to get what you need.
Here are her tips for “speaking C-suite”:
- Always come with a framework
I interpreted this as putting your ask (budget, staff, assistance) in the larger context of the things most important to executives. “We’re working really hard and not keeping up and therefore need another team member” is not in a framework.
- Understand the C-suite’s “growth agenda”
How does the company intend to grow? Help the executive see how “not keeping up” means falling short of supporting specific aspects of the growth agenda.
Side note: If yours is a publicly traded company and you don’t know your company’s growth agenda, attend the earnings calls. As she put it, “it’s all right there,” and added, “if you aren’t attending those calls, shame on you.”
- Present just a handful of key ideas
When you have an exec’s attention, come with a max of 2 to 3 key ideas. Don’t overload her with detail. You’ll lose your audience.
That Q&A session got me thinking that there must be a lot of other “how to speak C-suite” advice. Sure enough, there are many articles on the subject. I found some consistent themes and consolidated them:
Know your executive
- Executives aren’t all the same and each should be treated as such.
- Do your research and learn what “keeps them up at night.” Be clear on how your need fits with their worldview (WIIFM).
- An executive’s admin may be able to provide insights into what works best with their exec, including the best time for a meeting given all that’s going on in her world.
- The exec’s communications (verbal, email) may provide clues about how their minds work. Are they heavy on data, big ideas, are there consistent themes, etc.
- Have your one big idea, including outcomes and results, clearly defined
- Don’t pack too much into your message. Less is more. If it hits home, they’ll be back for more.
- Separate what they need to know from what you want them to know. Frame your topic in terms of your company’s goals and metrics.
- Even the best ideas come with costs and risks. Provide a balanced (read: credible) view including benefits (productivity, increased revenue, retention) and risks (higher costs, reduced market share) to the company. Always include the risk of taking no action at all.
- Don’t overwhelm execs with details, but have the data to back up your assertions and justify your requests, and know it inside and out. If you aren’t sure about something commit to getting an answer and following up; don’t wing it and risk your credibility.
- Execs are good at zeroing in on what’s important, dissecting it, and asking pointed questions to evaluate it. Anticipate the questions you’ll be asked—about numbers, logic or content—and have answers.
- Have a trusted resource look for holes in your arguments. This will deepen your understanding of each point.
- Exec meetings can get cut short. Have an elevator pitch (3 minutes or less) version of your request in case you need it.
- Don’t read slides; consider them the “wallpaper” and not your script. Slides alone don’t sell ideas. Meaningful conversations around the slides do.
- Spend most of your time telling execs what they don’t already know, not on background information they already know and accept.
- You need to own and sell the request or proposal—without flinching.
- You bring a unique perspective, which is valuable to leadership. Remember that.
- Don’t take executive impatience and abruptness during a meeting personally. That’s how the C-suite operates, bouncing from one topic to another, making decisions as efficiently as possible.
Please, internalize these practices and put them to work. Then, watch your program, and your career, thrive. If you want to discuss further, you know we’re here for you. 😊