Avoiding Your Firm’s Top Leaders Isn’t a Great Strategy

A few years ago, I worked with an individual who was afraid to get caught in an elevator with an executive. His fear: “I have no idea what to say to them, and whatever comes out of my mouth makes me sound like an idiot,” he offered. He indicated he had been avoiding elevators and taking the stairs in this ten-story office complex for a few months. “I’ve lost some weight, but this is not my idea of a healthy fitness program,” he added.

It turns out many individuals are uncomfortable with the idea of engaging and talking with their organization’s leaders. In my Level Up Career program, networking with top leaders consistently lands on the top-ten list of barriers to overcome.

As for the stair-climbing manager above, he learned to ride elevators yet again with a bit of communication planning and practice. He’s now one of those senior leaders.

Here are some ideas you can apply to move beyond this fear and not only make yourself visible to top leaders but begin long-term, value-creating relationships.

Five Ideas to Help You Strengthen Your Networking with Top Leaders

1. Mostly, Top Leaders Want to Hear from You

Your assumption that they’re busy doing top-leader things and don’t want to hear from you is partially flawed. Most senior leaders I’ve worked with and around love to hear from individuals at all levels.

Their lament is that they don’t hear enough from everyone else and want more input. They grow tired of the echo-chamber at the top and from engaging only with direct reports. Good top leaders appreciate the ground-truth—what’s happening where the work gets done—and will welcome insights and ideas.

2. Senior Leaders are Curious

The late CEO and Chairman of GE, Jack Welch, was known to greet people with a high-energy question: “What do you know?” He was serious. He was on the hunt for insights and ideas and was insatiably curious.

Earlier in my career, our division’s leaders spent days creating a mountain of reports and a lengthy presentation for our overseas headquarters’ visiting senior leader. At the start of the meeting, he looked at the stack of materials in front of him, slammed down his hand on them, and said, “Excuses!” After a dramatic pause, he followed up with, “Now let’s talk about what’s happening in the market and your business.”

Don’t discount how much top leaders want to know what you know.

3. You Don’t Need to Wait for Them to Create Opportunities

Many top executives strive to create opportunities to engage with others, from town hall meetings to virtual or roundtable lunches. However, the signal-to-noise ratio is weak in those structured or semi-formal settings. If you have an idea or an insight worth sharing, don’t save it up for their scheduled session. Create your opportunity.

Earlier in my career, I learned a valuable lesson from two individuals who joined as managers in marketing on the same day. After introductions, one looked at the other and said, “Let’s go find the CEO and get the ball rolling.” I was surprised at what seemed like a brash move. Ultimately, I was impressed at how quickly these two individuals cultivated relationships with top management.

4. Always Have Something Worth Saying (or Asking)

If you are going to stick your head in their office or set up a short video call, make sure you have something worth the time. Ideas and opportunities are catnip to senior leaders. Feedback from the front-lines is powerful, especially when you have customer input that offers insights on strategies and programs.

Don’t discount the value of asking questions as well. If you and others are confused over the recently announced strategic pivot’s rationale, ask about it. If something doesn’t make sense to you and others, seek clarity.

5. Be Creative

As a second-year out-of-college product specialist, I recognized the power broker in our firm was Maury, the vice-president of sales. He was a dynamic, high-energy individual, and I knew I could learn a lot from him. I also had ideas on how we could improve the representation of our offerings in the market—an issue that could help improve sales.

I learned that he regularly engaged in early-morning breakfast meetings at the Bob Evans in Schaumburg, IL. Wanting to share my ideas, I screwed up my courage and asked him if I could join him for a future breakfast meeting. I explained my proposed agenda topic, and he immediately said, “Yes.” This initial meeting translated into a significant number of them over the subsequent years. I believe these opportunities to share ideas and ask questions contributed to my fast promotion path in the firm.

Invest time in learning about hot-button topics of executives and don’t be afraid to insert yourself into their world. You might get a few breakfasts and a lot of face-time that leads to a value-creating relationship.

Let’s Talk About the Elephant in the Room

Your skip-level conversations may be interpreted negatively by your boss. I never advocate a dialog with a top leader that I haven’t already had with my boss. If it makes sense to involve top leadership, ask for your boss’s help in arranging this opportunity.

If your boss is one of those who demands fealty and views you talking out of turn with higher-ups as disloyalty, your situation is a bit more challenging. You can ask them to represent the ideas. Failing that, I’m good at taking the risk. However, choose your own risk tolerance. 

The Bottom-Line for Now

Indeed, power distance is a real thing in some organizations and across different cultures. However, many of us blow this out of proportion and discount the desire your top leaders have to hear from you. Good leaders are hungry for engagement and insights. If they’re not, you might question your choice of employer. 

Art's Signature