All through our lives we meet and have dealings with people who hold various positions of power and influence. Two unexpected experiences taught me a valuable lesson about how to engage and communicate with members of the C-Suite in unplanned moments.
My first experience was at school. My headmaster, a formidable man, once thrashed me with an old slipper for throwing a snowball during a playground snowball fight one winter (our school had a zero tolerance approach to snowball fights). I still remember awaiting my fate outside his office with the other accused and waiting for the little red light to turn to green above his door.
When I entered his office and before the slipper came out he asked me (like I was a condemned man) if I had anything to say. In hindsight, as I was going to get the slipper anyway, I wish I had something witty and memorable to recite but I didn’t. “No sir” I replied. Thwack.
Flash forward a few years and my second experience. This one was entirely different and fortunately didn’t involve a slipper.
A good friend of mine had asked me if I wanted to go to the Reading Festival – Oasis were playing that year and it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. He also told me that his brother (who was the editor of a major music magazine at the time) could get us in backstage to the VIP area. Rock and Roll.
When the day came for the festival we flashed our VIP lanyards at the burly backstage crew and made it to the VIP area. It was like we had arrived in heaven. A free well stocked bar. Lush sofas. Delicious snacks. We could easily have stayed there and just listened to the music.
And then this happened…
My friend’s brother asked us if we would like to meet Noel Gallagher. I looked over and there Noel was – and amazingly Paul Weller was standing next to him having a beer. My friend and I looked at each other and in unison, we said hell yes! So we slowly moseyed over, “shoe-gazing” as if we didn’t really care and it was just one of those things like buying a loaf of bread instead of meeting god.
As we joined them, Noel and Paul were deep in conversation about something no doubt important as taking the volume ‘up to 11’, their favourite chord to use that day or whether their blue M&M rider had been delivered. And out of nowhere my verbal diarrhea kicked in.
I said this: “Mr Gallagher, Mr Weller can I just say you are my heroes and I have all your CDs”.
Well, you can imagine what happened next – I had just broken the unwritten ‘don’t be a complete idiot when you talk to rock gods’ rule. There was an awkward silence that seemed to last for 2 hours. Everyone looked at each other. I distinctly remember them being really lovely about it and Noel said “thanks mate” and they both smiled at me. There was a bit more small talk and then I was discretely kicked in the shin by my friend and we were shepherded off by his brother who was giving me ‘the look’. We were then told not to approach anyone famous for the rest of the concert.
Encore? More like boo’d off stage.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to speak to many types of people who occupy roles in the various C-Suites in different organisations I’ve worked in.
Now for the purposes of this blog, when I say C-Suite here – I’m using it as a loose term for the group of people that often need to be influenced as part of major change or improvement programmes. These can be board members, directors, heads of, senior stakeholders etc. In many ways they have similar traits to Noel and Paul. They have power. They have influence. And they all typically don’t have much time.
So here’s the thing:
Everyone in this group needs a personal approach to how they are engaged and communicated with. And they need specific data of some form or another on what the impacts of the change or improvement will be on areas such as the business operations, customers experience, people changes, costs, systems, processes etc.
They cover a wide spectrum of personality types and communication styles but the one thing I learnt from Noel and Paul is this – if you have nothing tangible to say during an unplanned moment with them, you’ll lose a golden chance to really engage them. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever meet either of them and the result was a pile of drivel – not my finest moment.
So if you have something mentally prepared for the eventuality of coming across anyone in your ‘C-Suite’ and personalise it with a story, you can actually help accelerate change.
Don’t have nothing to say – instead prepare a mini story to tell.
Be prepared to tell the story for that unplanned discussion in the lift, at the start of the meeting, in the lunch queue, in the car park, passing in the corridor, while they walk past your desk etc.
People often call this an elevator pitch but I don’t see it this way. Think of it like a mini story – with a beginning, middle and an end. These people are busy and in the process of bumping into them there is a golden opportunity to sell to and engage them – quickly.
I’m not proposing having a pre-prepared robotic script tailored by person, but instead of ‘How’s it going?’ have a ‘if ever I bump into Kate, it would be really useful for Brian who is heading up the systems work stream that they could do with some support in understanding some process impacts in your department, – is there anybody you could think of?’ request ready.
It doesn’t need to be a rambling War and Peace. Just have something specific, short and snappy that is actionable to say.
Care is needed that you don’t become somebody who asks for something every time you see somebody so people swerve to avoid you. It could sometimes be a piece of positive feedback that someone in their team has supported the programme, or an anecdote from a customer on a change that the programme has initiated, that they may wish to share with their department.
Also, it’s important to attune your senses to any visual “do not disturb” signs, a simple smile will do. 🙂
This isn’t rocket science and is all about building and maintaining rapport at the end of the day to create a positive and sustainable relationship.
I’ve often thought if I had the chance to ‘do over’ that excruciating moment in time again with Noel and Paul what I would do. I think the best I would do is to be polite, not be a geek and if the opportunity in the conversation arose, I’d tell Noel and Paul a little story about an unlearnt red electric guitar gathering dust in the loft that I’d received as a Christmas present the previous year and ask for advice, such as their number one tip to learn how to play it.
Have a rock and roll Christmas!