How do you build relationships with business executives? Often times your opportunity to shift from a fleeting, impersonal relationship with a senior business decision maker (BDM) to a more direct relationship stems from what you can do to build rapport and curiosity in a few unplanned moments.
For Microsoft Enterprise Architect Ron Lamb, the “win” is to gain interest from the BDM for a 1:1 meeting on a topic that is of great personal curiosity or challenge. You may have an unplanned meeting in a coffee room, elevator, or after completing a larger meeting. You have a few moments to create rapport and take the first steps in building a relationship that works on a new plane, one that transcends any specific initiative that you and Microsoft are working on at that moment. What techniques and patterns seem to work to gain that initial 1:1 opportunity, and then build upon it?
This post summarizes the experiences and observations of Ron Lamb, a Microsoft Enterprise Architect involved in business strategy planning.
Over the years I’ve expanded my services from technology into business-focused development and business strategy, especially as I’ve acquired more experience across many industries and around the world.
One of my career objectives has been to quickly build great relationships with chief executives and business decision makers during our engagements. Though my participation often begins as a subject matter expert or to help drive transformation, a personal connection creates opportunities to have a larger and broader impact, and perhaps even become a special resource to that executive. David Maister’s book “The Trusted Advisor” describes the opportunity and techniques best.
For me, an important part of creating rapport and building relationships is quickly opening the door for an exchange and testing of ideas, while presenting learnings from peers.
My goal is to help business executives walk away having learned something, with skills or insights that they didn’t have earlier. I want to provide individual value, in addition to the value I bring as a part of the project team.
In my short conversation with the executive, I share my focus on a challenge that I’ve been researching and struggling with and provide some provocative element of the challenge. I seek an indication that they are challenged / perplexed by the same thing, and if so, ask if perhaps I could invite them out for an opportunity to talk to them about it. I choose a challenge that I know the executive is also curious or concerned about. I share my understanding of the size of the challenge and the opportunity, the lack of a clear industry answer, and the risk of committing to a path that has a suspect likelihood of success. Business executives have a full plate of such highly unstructured, perplexing challenges, so perhaps not unsurprisingly, I often get a positive response.
The opportunity that I imply and hope an executive responds to, is an opportunity to:
Some of the characteristics of topics that work well include:
By demonstrating your willingness to share your insights / hypotheses, you’re putting some personal capital on the table. When executives recognize this, they may reward your openness by sharing their own personal insights and hypothesis.
Very importantly, this must be a “Safe Conversation.” What you are each sharing is to the benefit of each of you as individuals, and not to become the subject of the next day’s conversations amongst the project team, or at Microsoft. This also explains the value in having this type of conversation be 1:1.
To further cement the understanding that this is not part of the ongoing work, and is between the two of us, I arrange for the meeting to be over dinner or perhaps a social setting after work. That is, I’m not using the executive’s or my “chargeable” or business time for this discussion. I avoid meeting in the executive’s office or building. Otherwise, there is an implication that this is work associated with context of the executive’s role, and existing business relationships and contracts. Meeting at the office also introduces time pressures from the need to attend upcoming meetings. The goal is to create a level of separation between the existing client / partner relationship and a burgeoning trusted relationship / advisor connection.
Avoid topics closely tied to the work you have in play at the client. Remove any sense of conflict with the Microsoft or client teams. Try to avoid the project teams questioning, “Why are we not invited to this meeting?” You have to use your own knowledge of who to inform before such a meeting. It is also your challenge to do so in a way that removes the potential of a “gate keeper's” intercession.
Discussions that I’ve personally had with executives in this setting include.
I let executives know our meeting is meant to provide an opportunity to share insights and the opportunity for me to share with them information about what some of their peers in other industries have done when facing similar challenges. When discussing lessons learned (successes and equally important for lessons learned, failures), the executive can look at ways to apply ideas to their own situation and industry.
thanks for sharing.