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5 Tips for Building Your Relationships with Senior Executives

Beatrice Gourhant

My career as a consultant and advisor has afforded me the opportunity to travel the world and create relationships with people and organizations from a wide variety of cultures, languages, and traditions —from startups to Fortune 500 companies. Working with executives and CEOs over the years, I’ve encountered numerous style and personality differences, along with varying business priorities and cultural concerns. One behavior I have found universal is the effort executives put into cultivating their communication style — tone, “presence,” level of transparency, authenticity, and so on.

The very best leaders have learned that effective communication is as much about authenticity and attitude as the words they speak and write. They know who they are and what road to take to deliver their message, effectively capturing the attention of their customers and stakeholders.

As a communications leader, you can help these executives by facilitating their journey. When you learn both their communications style and business goals, you become a trusted member of their inner circle — somebody they can trust to help them challenge and strengthen their ideas.

Here are five executive relationship building tips specifically geared toward building communications excellence.

1. Get to know each other

I walk into my first meeting with a curiosity for the executive’s mindset. As a communication leader, you want to start by asking a basic set of questions to assess the topic, need, audience, and timeline. Before you go into an executive’s office with a proposal or brief, take a step back to assess your current relationship by asking the following questions:

  • Do you know the executive’s current business objectives?
  • Do you know the their challenges and priorities?
  • What is the executive’s appetite for communications, and what are their communications style preferences?
  • What is the executive’s reputation?
  • Have you previously demonstrated your skill as a communications expert?

I frequently begin my meetings with a slide that tells my story, including both personal and professional insights. This is particularly helpful with leaders you don’t know as well. You play the role of “icebreaker,” and then you listen carefully. The goal is to hear business priorities firsthand, gain insight into the executive’s personality, and then explain how you can make a difference.

Each of you should walk away from the first meeting with a better understanding of the other person’s goals and capabilities and how you can add value to the executive’s team. Knowing each other better will help avoid mistakes along the way and to craft the right approach.

2. Gain and sustain trust

After the first meeting, the next step is to develop a communications framework and plan that clearly outlines how the strategies and tactics you propose will deliver on the business objectives the executive has shared. The plan should include a comprehensive mix of traditional, yet creative, and progressive communication vehicles, keeping in mind the executive’s communication style and organizational challenges.

By way of example, one executive I supported was extremely formal, traditional, and polished. To help him feel comfortable and provide him with the best venues to shine, I recommended large-scale speaking opportunities and more written communications. Another executive whom I worked with had a very different personality — she was more casual and folksy. For her, we looked at more intimate activities where she could personally interact with an audience. She was also a great candidate for podcast and blog posts, which gave her the opportunity to display her down-to-earth personality through regular postings and build on her very expressive charisma.

3. Measure success

Along the way, clearly demonstrate how your efforts are achieving results, both qualitatively and quantitatively. For example, you can conduct surveys or use data insights (Office Mix and Delves , for example, are good for getting quick insights on your PowerPoint presentation or email performance). Show the amount of positive coverage generated, open rate for relevant vehicles, and more. Most executives are numbers oriented, so try to provide strong data. Sharing that, for example, “76 percent of employees have a better understanding of what business transformation means to them after attending the last employee all-hands meeting,” offers a far more insightful statement than just saying that the session was well-attended.

4. Invite them out of their comfort zone

Now that you’ve done some work together and had some success, it’s time to use your earned reputation to take some risks. This may include proposing new communications vehicles or suggesting coaching that would help improve the executive’s communication skills. Whatever you decide on, thoroughly test your idea before proposing it directly and make sure to run it by the extended team to get their insight. The approval or feedback you get upfront will be beneficial in green-lighting your initiative.

Once, for a large announcement to employees located around the world, I recommended a non-traditional approach — one that was both creative and cost-effective. There were multiple goals: from delivering the message effectively to a global audience to making sure all of their questions were answered. Using only one communication vehicle wouldn’t have met the objective. I used a podcast created with Office Mix to deliver the message and set-up a live Q&A on Yammer with team members responding to live questions. The team was able to answer 50 percent more questions than a normal call. On my side, I could create a very complete FAQ document and get insights on who participated instantly. The proposal  included statistics of readership and participation rate.

The results were outstanding. Employees liked the new format, and the executive enjoyed the live FAQ process and podcast. To boot, it was more time effective.

5. Remain their advisor

Now it’s time to pursue the journey and build on what you have already established: trust, transparency, and results. By now, you may be one of your executive’s most trusted communications advisors, playing a key role in helping them achieve their greatest potential. This truly is the ultimate goal for an executive communicator.

At this point, it’s about maintaining your relationship. Set regular meetings on the calendar. Keep a rhythm, and try to be creative from time to time. For instance, during spring and summer in the Pacific Northwest, I often suggest walking meetings. Even small meeting habits can offer long-term rewards. In my experience, the more emphasis and imagination you put into these regular meetings, the more likely the executive is to reach out.

In regular meetings, you will typically share the contributions you have made, hear about what’s next from a business perspective, and gain an understanding of what the executive found useful (and enjoyable) in terms of communication activities, whether it is inside or outside their team. You can also periodically share interesting articles and blogs, give detailed briefing information prior to any communication activity, and provide a recap (along with any coaching) afterward.

Finally, it is perfectly acceptable to disagree. Often, an executive will appreciate your communications expertise and commitment to helping them and their businesses succeed. You may not always “win,” but you will have demonstrated that you are not timid about professionally challenging their communications in the future.

When you understand how to effectively communicate with your clients, you create lasting relationships that can carry you through the most challenging business cycles and project deadlines. The strength of your relationships can play a pivotal role in your career and, most importantly, improve the results you deliver for your clients.