Conventional wisdom holds that if you aren’t selling your story to the most senior executives in a business, you won’t win approval for your project—whether as a salesperson or an executive. While sales people are told to “sell at the C-level” and they often do get the meeting, many times it’s without an appropriate goal or sufficient preparation. They walk out of the C-level meeting high-fiving each other, thinking it was a good meeting, but in reality nothing really has happened. The sales process hasn’t been advanced, they haven’t secured a senior level internal advocate, and they may have actually hurt the cause more than helped it.
Sales professionals who need executive sponsorship for their key initiatives also need the support of senior business executives, but are often intimidated or unprepared for an internal meeting. They may feel political pressure to behave in a certain manner, or to manage their comments to ensure the executive feels like they are leading the conversation.
Yet engaging at the senior executive level is critical to getting these initiatives funded and gaining political support internally. An effective executive meeting can help move a project forward, help identify issues that need to be resolved, or bring a key opinion maker into the decision.
In my conversations with business executives I’ve asked, "Why would you be interested in meeting with sales professionals?" The answer is often the same—because they need to be educated on how certain solutions can help move the business forward. They want to understand how certain solutions can lower costs, drive revenue, or achieve key business goals, but they often find these meetings empty because they either don't understand what's being discussed or they feel there is a selling agenda that gets in the way.
These executives play an important role in how the initiatives are managed. Without their buy-in and shared vision the level of effort to fund and deploy certain solutions could go up dramatically. With their buy-in and partnership they can clear roadblocks that are difficult to clear on your own.
Here are some best practices on ensuring your C-Level meeting goes well:
Coming in and shooting from the hip is not a good idea with this type of meeting. Make sure you do your homework on what the businesses (or the executive’s) top priorities are and be prepared to speak to how your idea, proposal or plan addresses the issues. DO NOT interview them for information you should already know! This can be viewed as a waste of their time.
Stay Away from “Selling” Mode
Instead of moving into selling mode, explain the goals of the project, tie those goals with your understanding of the executive’s priorities, and seek agreement on alignment. Ask for input on key issues that need to be addressed for project success, and remember, your goal isn't to get them to "sign off on the deal" but to get their buy-in to prove it out. You want their organizational support.
Provide An Executive Leave Behind
One part of being prepared is to have a leave behind document about your meeting. Don't presume that a busy executive will be able to remember everything about your meeting. Give them something easy and digestible about your plan. If it's a word document make it one page of legible information. Use bullets and include summary level information. If it is a PowerPoint print-out keep it to 3 or 4 pages of summarized information.
Keep Your Key Stakeholders Informed
If you get the executive meeting, make sure you let your key stakeholders know what’s going on. The last thing you want is for them to get a surprise email/voicemail from the executive asking about the meeting. This means keeping IT in the loop. The problems you create by not telling them can be bigger than the problems avoided by keeping it a secret.
So what’s the best methodology for success?
So in order to have a successful meeting with executives we recommend you follow this methodology:
1. Identify a business problem or priority that your proposed plan addresses.
2. Validate the executive’s perspective on this issue (triangulate by talking with other people close to him/her.)
3. Send an email in advance with an outline for the meeting so the executive knows what to expect
4. Prepare a one page briefing document on the issue or solution, and what you want from the executive.
5. Be prepared to ask for their support in clearing organizational roadblocks as you prove out your plan
6. Follow-up with the executive but don’t pester them. They want to enable the process not be in the middle of it.
With this approach you will establish credibility, let the executive know you are informed and prepared, and raise the chances that you will gain their support for your idea, proposal or plan.