HOW TO: Develop a Great Relationship with Your CEO

CEOs need thoughtful input from their execs— whether they realize it or not.  “The CEO needs you now more than ever,” says Ann Oglanian, executive coach to investment management executives and the President of ReGroup, a San Francisco-based business consulting firm.

The pressures on business leaders today are enormous: surviving the frothy markets, creating increasing transparency and accountability while growing and creating stable revenue streams, engendering loyalty with outstanding client service, complying with growing regulations, and inspiring employees amid frothy markets.

Here are a few ways you can help.

1.   Put yourself in the CEO’s shoes

Do you have a solid understanding of what your CEO faces on a daily basis? Do you understand top business challenges and competitive threats? If not, find colleagues who can help you gain that insight. When you expand your abilities beyond a technical focus and start “thinking like a CEO,” you’ll become a more valuable member of the team.

2.   Get on the CEO’s calendar

Depending on the size of your company and your CEO’s schedule, this is probably more easily said than done. Even if you haven’t had much contact with your CEO, now is the time to start scheduling regular meetings. Begin the first one with a pitch: a business-savvy idea you want to share. Introduce your function, your philosophy, and your value to your CEO – and then repeat it the next time you get together.

3.   Talk like a CEO

Technical professionals, like CFOs and CCOs, have an interesting challenge – they generally want to communicate vast amounts of detailed information so that senior executives are ‘informed’. The irony is that senior executives, including the CEO, generally want less – not less information, but smaller amounts of it – condensed into useful – and easily digestible - bites. So, you need to translate information and ideas and present it in the way that decision-makers think, not the way you think.

Whenever you have a chance to catch the CEO’s ear, use the ReGroup Rule of Three: always boil your thoughts down to three things the CEO should know (never 4, never more: more is not better). Keep your communication real – use theory sparingly.  Seek to educate – not to tell. And demonstrate your ideas with support and examples. It takes practice, but your CEO will appreciate it.

4.  Make your ideas sticky

Communication – probably the most important skill set for every technical professional. The problem is that finance, HR, and compliance aren't always engaging.  You have to compete with vast amounts of information that your audience – portfolio managers, salespeople, consultants – believes is more likely to make them successful. So, prepare for the challenge of getting your message across by reading Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  They’ve figured out how to help technically-inclined professionals make complex ideas stick.

5.   Play the numbers

CEOs tend to be obsessed with a few things: sales, expenses, and profits. You should be, too. Compliance, HR, legal, and operations can enable revenue-growing activities with the right approach. In fact, done well, you can – and should – be a competitive advantage for your firm. There’s a thought.

If you're in compliance, write a high-level summary about how you help protect clients for the sales team to use as a sales tool.  If you're in legal, keep track of how you're lowering outside legal costs. For example, if you help employees meet their compliance obligations as efficiently, you may have something to measure.  Imagine: you have 100 employees and each one has to follow 10 steps in filling out a Code of Ethics form. If you reduce that by just 2 steps, you’ve reduced the process by 20%. That counts! And it demonstrates that your head is in the game.

6.   Think like a VP of manufacturing

Continuous improvement is the name of the game. You don’t need to re-engineer your processes every year. Instead, you need to make small but well-designed changes to make your work more effective. Focus on subjects you believe present the greatest risk. Remember to communicate the changes and why you prioritized them.

7.   Build and use your network

Just like your CEO, you’re not an island. If you’ve never had experience managing risk or considering revenue growth, reach out to other C-level executives in your network of friends and colleagues to garner some advice. Put together a team of advisers to help you determine how you can improve effectiveness and efficiency or deliver better customer service. If you aren’t using a social networking site by now, sign up and start experimenting. (If you're in one of our cities, join a ReGroup Roundtable.) 

8.   Be honest

The CEO does not need a yes man – or woman. Be honest about the challenges, issues, and concerns that you’re seeing… and challenge the CEO’s ideas. Do it in a way that fosters trust. Since chief executives are often visionaries, they may not be completely in tune with frugality, nor with the tough decisions your company needs to make in order to survive now and compete when the economy recovers.

9.  Capitalize on your analytical nature and process orientation

Risk management thinking, regulatory expertise, and operational savvy are skills that executive recruiters often highlight in terms of strategic value for the business. Present yourself as an expert in this area to your CEO — not only through reminders of how you have applied the skills to the your function, but of how you can apply them to other business problems. A good executive helps anticipate risk.  In that way, you’re equipped to be a good adviser to the CEO.

10.   Make the CEO look good

Sometimes you need to take your ego out of the game. Offer viable, strategic ideas and encourage your CEO to present them as his or her own to larger groups. You’ll be helping your CEO grow a positive reputation with employees, clients, partners, and shareholders. And you'll be helping your firm, by being a great contributor.

The benefit to you: A strong future with your company and an ally at the top.