Most employees NEVER get to have a meeting with the CEO of their company. So if you do, it’s a one-shot deal that you don’t want to screw up. After all, exposure is a double-edged sword, and many CEOs and senior executives have short attention spans but long memories.
This post isn’t written for the seasoned executive or middle manager who has regular interactions with the CEO. These managers have already earned their scars through the school of hard knocks, and are now completely at ease using the executive restroom.
Rather, it’s written as a way to provide some mentoring assistance to the early career rising stars.
Follow these tips, and you’ll not only survive, you’ll thrive!
1. Study your audience.
Prepare like you would for a job interview. Learn everything you can about your CEO ahead of time. Read the information provided on your company website – often found under “About”, or “For Investors”. Do a Google search, including recent news, in order to get an external perspective. Read or view any recent speeches. Talk to others that know the CEO, and have had meetings with him/her.
You may not end up using any of this information, but it will make you feel more prepared and comfortable. And who knows, there may be an opportunity to make a personal connection or informed comment, or at least prevent you from putting your foot in your mouth.
2. Give yourself permission to BE an expert.
Yes, you are meeting with the high ranking person in your company. However, CEOs can’t possibly be experts in every little aspect of the company. That’s YOUR job, to be their expert in your area. If you’re not, you have no reason to be at the meeting.
3. Appreciate the CEO’s perspective.
Imagine a 12-16 hour day where you are in back-to-back meetings ALL day, every day. Each meeting has a vastly different topic. In the eyes of each person you are meeting with, it’s the most important thing in the world to them, and you’re expected to be interested and make a high level decision. That’s day of a typical CEO. Understand and appreciate that perspective as your prepare for the meeting and set your expectations realistically.
4. Be clear on what would be a “win”.
Ask yourself what you’d like to achieve as a result of this meeting? Are you looking for approval, and if so, is that a reasonable expectation? Or are you looking for interest and a definitive next step? Being clear and realistic on what would be your “win” will increase your chances of getting what you’re looking for.
5. One page.
No multi-page reports or PowerPoint presentations! Bring a ONE-PAGE executive summary. The one-pager gives the CEO something to take notes on and a take-a-way reference document. Anything more will be ignored and discarded.
However, bring all of those reports and supporting documentation with you, in case you need them to respond to a question.
5. Honor thy Executive Assistant.
The CEO’s Executive Assistant can be your best friend or worst nightmare. When requesting and setting up the meeting, approach her (not to be sexist, but it’s usually a high ranking her) with the utmost respect. Don’t make the mistake of getting too casual. Explain your reason for the meeting, and ask for 30 minutes of the CEO’s time.
If you are offered a choice between an early or late meeting, take the early one, as there will be less chance of it being rescheduled. Send your one-page summary in advance, as most Exec Assistants will print and provide a briefing package at the end of the day for the next day’s meetings.
6. The arrival.
If you are traveling, allow LOT’s of extra travel time – plan for the worse. Arrive at the office five minutes early, and then expect to wait. Don’t be surprised if your meeting has to be rescheduled (especially if you got one of those late meetings).
Introduce yourself to the CEO’s Executive Assistance, but don’t hover around her desk making small talk. It’s not her job to keep you and every visitor entertained, and if she did, she’d never get any work done.
7. First impressions.
Wear a suit (when in doubt, overdress), watch your posture, speak clearly and confidently, and greet the CEO with a smile and firm handshake. Wait to be offered a seat, or until the CEO sits down first (they often have a favorite chair).
8. Small talk?
If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know if it’s better to start with small talk (Hey, I see you’re a Fighting Irish fan – so am I!”) or get right to the point. However, don’t assume – let the CEO set the tone. Be prepared to introduce yourself and answer questions about your background, role, etc…
CEOs are people too - it might even be a welcome relief to spend time with a "regular" employee for a change.
Depending on his/her style and mood, this could eat up most of your time if you’re not careful. Be patient, but after 5-10 minutes, make a tactful transition to the meeting topic.
8. Get to the point and expect questions.
Both in meetings and one-on-ones, CEOs are notoriously quick studies and action oriented. Don’t try to make a case and gradually build up to what you’re looking for – state it right up front. Then, present your background and rationale, and be prepared to be interrupted and have to think on your feet. Assuming you’ve done your homework, this shouldn’t be a problem. When asked a question, make sure you understand the question before you answer it. Then, answer it directly and succinctly. If you don’t know, DO NOT attempt to bluff your way through it. Just say “that’s a good question, and I don’t know, but I’d be glad to get the answer and get back to you”.
If challenged, and you disagree, don’t automatically back down and agree. Remember, you’re the expert. If you back down too readily, you’ll lose credibility. However, don’t be stubborn – know when to back off and drop that bone.
Take notes, but don't write down every word like a court stenographer.
9. End early if possible.
If you’ve achieved your win, and there’s still 10 minutes left, close your notepad and offer to give that 10 minutes back to the CEO. They will either thank-you, or invite you to stay. Either way, they will appreciate the gesture, as will the next person waiting outside for their turn.
Thank them for their time, and thank the Executive Assistant on the way out.
10. You own the follow-up.
A wise mentor once told me “never leave an executive with a long to-do list”. For one thing, it may not get done. But more importantly, the CEO will appreciate your respect for their time and your willingness and ability to get things done on his/her behalf.
After the meeting, send a brief thank-you, meeting summary, including any decisions and next steps.
How about you? What advice would you give to someone who’s going to meet with the CEO for the first time?