We just led a webinar on how to take a trust-based approach to building C-suite relationships. (We decided in the moment that we should call it the Hirsch and Howe Show.) There was a great question asked that we didn’t have time to adequately address, so we’re taking a moment to share our thoughts here.
For context, our webinar proposed three fundamental steps to building trust-based C-suite relationships:
The question came up in our discussion about getting your “how” right:
What if your client below the C-level exec is blocking your access to develop a new relationship with the exec—do you ever go around him or her?
The short answer is possibly, but IF AND ONLY IF, two conditions are met:
The hardest work to do with this situation may not actually be the difficult conversations that are required should you choose what we’ll call a “go-around,” but rather the mental prep required to assess the situation in a trustworthy way in the first place.
What’s key is making sure you’ve asked yourself WHY you want access to the C-suite person (step 1 above), and that you’ve arrived at a good answer from a trust-building standpoint.
Let’s pause here for a quick poll: What are good reasons, in general, to pursue a C-Suite relationship? Choose all that apply:
The answer that reflects the most trustworthy approach is … drumroll … none of the above.
Think about it: every other option is actually a demonstration of high self-orientation—sometimes sneakily-so. In other words, it’s you wanting something for your benefit, not for theirs. The same is true when it comes to go-arounds.
Going a little deeper, consider what’s often at the source of (and problematic about) each of these motives:
|The Why||The Source||What’s Problematic|
|So we can show them our capabilities||· The desire to be heard, which is often far greater than our desire to listen· Ego needs
· A firm norm/assumption that this is the right thing to do
|You’re leading with what matters to you, not them.
You become a hammer searching for a nail.
|Because <insert competitor name> is in there||· The desire to win/gain power||<Competitor name> might be doing really well by your client. If you’re a true trusted advisor, you’ll celebrate that (gasp!).|
|To show them we’re better than the competition||· The desire to win/gain power· Ego needs||If they’re happy with their current provider, they’re not going to believe you’re better. And you won’t convince them that you’re better by talking at them about your capabilities.|
|To secure a champion to help us expand our offerings||· The desire to win/gain power||While you care about expanding your offerings, it is highly unlikely that your client cares one iota about expanding your offerings. Leading with your desire to gain more share of the account/market because that’s what your annual goals state (for example) is all about you. Your needs aren’t their problem.|
|Because the lower levels aren’t listening||· Avoiding rejection/embarrassment· Avoiding what might be hard work to improve these relationships||It’s possible they’re not listening because you’re not being effective, or because they don’t trust you—a go-around therefore doesn’t address the real issue(s), and might even exasperate things. Imagine if someone tried to go around you.|
|Because they’re the real decision-makers||· The desire to win/gain power· Ego needs||Decisions are often left to—or strongly influenced by—those very people you are trying to go around. So the “go-around” could backfire, because the decision-maker and those in the client organization at your level are both annoyed.|
|Because we’re getting nudged/pressured/pushed to have more “eminence” by our colleagues||· Avoiding rejection/embarrassment· Ego needs||This is a you-centric motive, not a client-centric motive. And it’s an internal issue to address, not a client issue to address.|
If some of what’s in the table above seems harsh, well … our language may be too strong to apply to you. Or maybe not. Consider that you can be a well-meaning person of high integrity who likely still falls prey to some variation of what we’ve sketched out simply because you’re a card-carrying member of the human race. The mindsets we describe are actually common, and we’ve heard them from many humans.
Also consider that, in general, everyone’s first “why”—in other words, your rational reason for a go-around—is almost always wrong.
We brainstormed, and so far we have come up with only one clear, unambiguous reason:
The project, organization, or CXO her/himself is at serious risk—either because the lower-level person is incompetent or is sabotaging (perhaps consciously, perhaps not).
If your situation meets the criterion above, read the next paragraph. If not, jump two paragraphs down.
We came up with at least three best practices:
We brainstormed this, too, and came up with two for starters. Note they are not mutually exclusive:
Now you have the Hirsch and Howe point of view on the matter. And now you know why we couldn’t adequately answer the question in the two minutes that we had on the webinar. It’s complex, with a lot of nuance, and requiring masterful mindsets as well as skill sets.
Kind of like the nature of trust.