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How to Listen to a Senior Executive

Posted by Bill Lee on April 13, 2011 at 02:57 PM



Gaining strong executive support for any initiative is a key element of success, which is why we've discussed this enduring issue several times in previous issues and in our conferences. In this short series, we're going to look at a fairly bold approach: how to increase your value to senior management and in particular, to your executive sponsor,  by 1) listening more effectively--which is key to building the sort of "trusted advisor" relationship that the best top executives crave, and 2) as trust builds, guiding the discussion to those areas where he or she, and you, can really increase the impact of your program on the business.

All of this will assume that you have the RIGHT kind of senior executive to approach in this way: one who is open to ideas, values input from thoughtful people, and welcomes pushback and challenges to conventional wisdom (even his pet beliefs). (And if you don't work with such an executive, you might think about finding another one!)

1. "Echo" what he says to show you're listening (and to help you listen actively!).

Sr. Exec: "We need to raise awareness in our marketplace of what we can do." You: "Raise awareness."  Sr. Exec: "That's right. We're doing a great job, and have lots of passionate customers, but no one knows." You: "No one knows." Sr. Exec: "It sure seem that way. Surveys are showing we only have about 25% name recognition." You: "Wow, only 25%."

2. Ask open ended questions.

"How are you thinking we'll address that issue overall?" "Who are the critical players we'd need to address it?" "How would we engage with those passionate customers to help us?"

3. Help him flesh out his ideas.

Don't just repeat and don't just summarize. Synthesize. "OK, I'm hearing three different challenges that we need to address: lack of market awareness, lack of fully engaging with our customers, and absence of a clear branding strategy on our part, is that it?"

4. As you gain a level of comfort in the relationship, constructively push back.

As questions like, "Why?" "Do we have the internal resources we need to really do that?" "Where would our internal support come from?" "How would we convince PR to go along?" Genuinely strong executives love this.

5. Clarify the meaning of unusual words he uses.

"Why do you say 'no one' knows?" "How do we know we have 'lots' of passionate customers?"

6. Get him to clarify his thinking on how we got here, where we are now, and where we're headed.

By asking about the past, the present and the future, you help him to establish context, why any important new initiative needs. "How did this situation start?" "What are we doing now to correct it?" "If we do the things you suggest, how will we know we've succeeded? What's the measures?"

7. As respect and a good level of comfort develop, ask more personal questions when they would be relevant and helpful.

"What are your overall goals for your organization?" "How do you feel about what's going on now?" These sorts of "touchy feely" questions can be critical to helping you--and him--gauge his real commitment. If that passion isn't there, not much is likely to happen.


Some of these may seem pretty bold, but you'll find that if you start slowly and build up, substantial trust and respect will develop with your senior executive sponsor. And that will be key to your success and his.

In Part 2 in our next issue, we'll provide a set of specific provocative questions about customer references and customer engagement in general, that can be used very effectively to increase his support and involvement--and guide your own efforts--as your mutual trust grows


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