Executive support. We all know it’s important. When I hear a client or prospect say, “I’ve got executive support,” I ask, “What’s that look like?” You may know where I’m going with this. There are different flavors of “support,” and they are not equal.
To be fair, I don’t think all program managers articulate what they need in terms of executive support. When you hear an executive say, “This is important to me. Let me know how I can help.” that’s a good start, but not in and of itself the definition of executive support. You cannot expect an executive to know what you need from them to make your program successful. This is on you.
You’ll need different things at different times. Let’s separate what’s required in terms of leadership involvement (1) leading up to and including program launch, and then (2) post-launch.
- Change Management –You’re introducing non-trivial change to your organization; change is hard. Customer advocates have existed mainly in the heads of salespeople, customer success managers, product managers, executives, and others in the know. Some of your co-workers like it that way. It’s their secret “power.” Some are lazy, and the idea of formalizing and committing their advocate knowledge is a bother. Adhering to a process for requesting the use of advocates, tracking that use, and updating information about advocates is all very different than the way they’ve “always done it,” maybe for their whole career.
- Communicating Strategic Importance –When an executive or executive team vigorously communicates a strategic change, that usually gets the workforce’s attention. Such a change results from carefully considered factors directly tied to company growth. The logic for investing in an advocate program and the anticipated benefits must come from leadership and align with each management level.
- Participation Not Optional – There will always be the rebels, those that march to their own drumbeat. Allowing those people to play by different rules will undermine the program’s strategic goals. There is leakage. Like an engine that isn’t properly tuned, the program just won’t perform at its best. Leadership must express intolerance for system dysfunction and not getting on board.
- Process Enforcement – After the launch of a program, there will be growing pains. But it’s essential to bring those working outside the new system inside quickly. Consequences for disregarding company imperative are required. These aren’t easy to secure, but they will accelerate participation, just as rewards will. You will earn stakeholder attention by tying various program support activities to job performance measurement.
- Recognition/Reward – Change happens with more joy when it’s rewarding. Routinely recognizing program successes and contributing stakeholders is vital for building company-wide momentum. Some company executives are philosophically opposed to the idea of incentivizing employees to “do their jobs.” It’s understandable, but also old school and short-sighted. Do you want to win by breaking with precedent or lose on principle?
- Strategic Planning Inclusion – A successful program is joined-at-the-hip with company growth plans and goals. It does not operate in its own orbit because it exists to support every part of the organization that can execute its mission better with customer advocates (Sales, demand gen, PR, events, digital, social, etc.).
- Program Advisory Board – Because a customer marketing program that’s running well is easy for VPs and CxOs to forget, it’s imperative that an executive is a member of your program advisory board.
Specifically, what does executive support look like?
In short, it is explicit, not passive involvement. It is visible actions to back up words (which do matter). It is sustained rather than fleeting interest.
The medium may be written (email, Slack/Teams), video (internal communications videos), or spoken (team or all-hands meetings); whatever has proven to be the most effective channel(s).
Communication is not a one-and-done task. You know the adage: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; then tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.” That all applies here. Work with leaders on a recurring communications plan; build a communications calendar. The cadence could be weekly to start, then bi-weekly, and ultimately monthly. But it should never stop.
It’s easier to edit than to create. Some executives completely get the value of customer advocates. Some understand it intellectually, but it isn’t yet emotionally internalized. The latter group could benefit from your guidance. Write some or all of the suggested pieces for them.
Build excitement, set expectations.
- The importance of the program (e.g., competitive differentiation)
- Anticipated benefits (e.g., improved win rates)
- Behavioral changes expected (e.g., stop “black market” referencing)
- How behaviors will be enforced/reinforced (e.g., performance review component, spiff program)
- Updates on program progress (e.g., 100 new F1000 advocates onboarded!)
- Updates on program progress (e.g., 50 new Insurance advocates using Product A onboarded)
- Stakeholder success stories (e.g., Joanna Birk closed $3.8M this month using 6 reference accounts)
- Program impact stats (e.g., Opportunities leveraging advocates have a win rate 30% higher than those that don’t)
Strategic Planning Inclusion
“Getting a seat at the table” is the ultimate goal for many customer marketing managers. That means being invited to key planning meetings that include directors, VPs and CxOs. These meetings give program managers critical visibility into upcoming advocate needs for email campaigns, webinars, earnings calls, digital marketing, etc. You can then suggest ways in which the program can help; ways which no one would have thought of without you being in the conversation.
Executives have the influence needed to get you that seat. Once they understand the advocate expertise you have and the “assets” the program has to offer, they’ll be able to identify advocate opportunities: “That’s a great idea! Did you talk to customer marketing to get their thoughts? They have some strong advocates in that segment you should leverage.” Customer marketing is still a relatively young function and often not considered the strategic discipline that it should be. Changing this perception may take persistence and change management effort on your part. But, the benefits to the organization are worth it!
Program Advisory Board
Their participation ensures they understand what’s working and what’s not, which they can help solve. They can bring big picture perspective into the conversations. Likewise, the more they know about the program the more they can infuse executive conversations with insights into how customer advocates are being used across the enterprise, which will likely spark creative customer advocate applications.
I’ve laid out how we believe executive support should work. If the version of it at your company doesn’t include the elements described above, you don’t have it—yet. If you’re not sure how to get it, read our post: How to Capture and Keep CxO Engagement. In short, you must think like an executive and talk in terms of their areas of interest, their priorities, and connect the dots to your program. Do not assume they will connect those dots on their own.
Don’t be shy about asking for genuine support from your executives. The ask alone sets an expectation: Customer reference management is a team sport, and executives are on that team.