The courtship of a C-suite executive for a position in a company is a prolonged ordeal. Three to six months is pretty common. Even without the usual starts and stops in the process, the executive meets a variety of people --- potential peers, perhaps senior direct reports, and board members. In my last placement as a Chief Marketing Officer, I met with the CEO at least three times before receiving an offer, including extensive one-on-one sessions in his office and over dinner.
Once an offer is accepted, you move from “engagement” to “marriage.” The selling stops on both sides, and both you and the organization live with the realities that you face. And the most important reality you face is found in the relationship you have with your new boss, the CEO. Very early on in your tenure, the two of you need to establish how you will work together.
What, then, should get covered in an early meeting with the boss? A search of literature provides a dizzying array of options. Try “9 Questions to Ask Your New Boss,” “15 Ways to Impress Your Boss on Day 1” or “15 Ways to Make Your One-on-Ones Worth Your While.” There are 39 tactics to try in only three articles! I canvassed my LinkedIn network for a more manageable list of topics for this initial conversation. Because, who can find time to impress a CEO 15 ways on Day 1, much less remember 15 ways to impress? At a senior level and having just accepted a position, impressing the boss, even an intimidating one, is less important than establishing a good working relationship.
So, with help from my friends, here are five things to remember in the first meeting(s) with the CEO as your boss.
1. Communications. Amy Breidenbach Green noted the importance of understanding the CEO’s preferred communications style and methods. Do they prefer email, text or face-to-face? How often can you expect to connect with them? If you really have to get an important message for them, how should you send the Bat Signal? Is there a way to immediately short-cut their assistant if necessary? How do they respond to calls at night or over weekends? How/when do they typically provide feedback to their reports, and how can you provide feedback to them? How do they prefer to hear bad news? OK, it is becoming easier to see how there are a lot of questions to ask Day 1!
2. Scope of Responsibilities. Bob Foht used what he called “DO – TELL – ASK” when he spoke to the owners of GearGrid, after joining the company as CEO. To establish the extent of his responsibilities, he sought clarification on what he could just do without reporting it, what actions should he tell the owners about after the fact and what steps required that he ask permission before taking. In essence this is a simplified RACI.
DO – TELL -ASK is where potential disconnects can arise between your expectations of autonomy and the CEO’s need to keep on top of the business. It’s likely that nobody has asked this of the CEO before, so the “rules” are being made up on the fly. Consider this a starting point in your relationship; over time, things in the ASK pile might move to TELL.
Much of the literature on early interactions with bosses suggest asking about management style. I agree how important understanding management style can be. But asking about scope of responsibilities and communications can address the same thing in a more granular way.
3. Understanding the Priorities of the Moment. You, no doubt, are familiar with the corporate vision and other public statements of strategic objectives. By the time you sit down with the CEO, you are probably up to speed on corporate priorities. But what is important may deviate from what is urgent, and urgency might win out, in the moment you join the leadership team. These urgent matters are not often talked about with outsiders, so you might come on board completely ignorant of what is taking the leadership team’s energy and time.
Are there crises that are taking the C-suite’s attention away from your direct responsibilities? What priorities have been dropped to create capacity to handle a crisis? Are there problems within your area of responsibility that need immediate attention? Are there looming issues on the CEOs mind that you, too, can be thinking about?
4. The CEO’s Expectations of You. Somehow, even indirectly, the urgent issues raised will impact you. What does the CEO want from you? Should you be patient that they cannot spend time with you, while they address other issues? Can you collaborate with a colleague and produce what Michael Watkins calls a “quick win?” Do they believe you have experience in a similar situation, which can put you in the role of advisor?
The same questions stands for the long-term priorities: how can play a role in helping the CEO achieve their goals, even those that don’t seem to directly involve you?
You impressed the organization enough through the recruitment process to get this position; what were the strengths they saw in you that you can leverage immediately? How can your ignorance of how things get done be used to the organization’s advantage? Are there things that the “newbie” can say that would be more difficult for those who are entrenched?
5. Creating a Personal Rapport. When I asked Pat Anderson about his experiences getting to know his CEO, he turned the issue around, thinking about what he likes to do in early meetings with his own subordinates. At the top of his list was getting to know people as people.
It strikes me that a CEO will do the same thing in their initial meetings with you. Be open to sharing personal information that would not have come out in your interviews. Talking about your family or your interests, sharing a book or article you recently read or talking about house hunting if you’re hiring involves a move will provide a glimpse of you outside of the office. And this helps to build trust.
The power dynamics of your relationship makes it difficult for you to overtly take the lead, asking personal questions of the CEO that you don’t know the answers to. It is fair game to volunteer information about yourself in an appropriate setting. If there is a public way of knowing something about the CEO (where they went to school, non-profits they are associated with, etc.), these can be avenues to build a personal bond.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.