How to Get the Ear of Your CEO—And What to Say When You Have It
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Careers Leadership Sep 3, 2019

How to Get the Ear of Your CEO—And What to Say When You Have It

Every interaction with the top boss is an audition for senior leadership.

Michael Meier

Based on insights from

Rob Apatoff

Say you’re an executive aspiring to join the C-Suite. Your access to the firm’s CEO may be limited. But understanding when and how to communicate issues and opportunities upward can make a big difference to your success. And, for that matter, your company’s.

Rob Apatoff, a clinical professor and executive director of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute, spent eight years leading FTD Companies before retiring as President and CEO in 2016. Prior to FTD, he was CEO of Rand McNally and led a turnaround of the business for private equity before selling the company. Over his career, as a senior executive at companies including Anhesuer Busch, Reebok, and Allstate, he has learned the importance of capitalizing on C-Suite encounters, no matter how fleeting.

Those encounters—whether scheduled or spontaneous—are your auditions for the senior leadership. It’s critical that you show you are in command of your business and can clearly and succinctly communicate your team’s most important information.

Apatoff recommends ways to make the most of the times when you get the CEO’s ear.

Know When to Approach the CEO

A surprising number of people have a hard time discerning a good time to approach the CEO. After all, engaging in the hallway, lunchroom, or airport may or may not be opportune—it all depends on the CEO, the news you have to share, and what else is going on at that moment. But CEOs notice and appreciate when managers are sensitive about how they are approached, so it is important to get this step right.

Apatoff’s advice is to start by asking yourself a few simple questions: How urgent is the information I want to present? Is my goal to simply introduce myself and share something positive about my team, or is there a high-stakes decision that the CEO may wish to weigh in on, in a timely manner?

Then he recommends engaging in some situational awareness and reading the CEO’s body language. If, for example, they are being pulled away to deal with a matter more pressing than yours, maybe now is not the best time to pitch them on a new sales initiative.

“Being able to respect the CEO’s time is always appreciated,” Apatoff says. “I’ve seen people, while trying to get face time, they just don’t properly read the situation. You need to have the ability to read people and have enough EQ to understand the situation that you’re in. Often, CEOs will make a mental note of your thoughtfulness and be more amenable to give you time in future interactions.”

Be Prepared When the Opportunity Arises

A CEOs’ time is always at a premium. When you have the opportunity to connect with them, the last thing you want to do is draw a blank or shift into small talk.

“If you’re trying to make conversation and a connection by bringing up your kid’s home run in T-ball last weekend, you’re not doing anyone any good, especially yourself,” Apatoff says.

Instead, you should be ready at a moment’s notice to talk concisely about whatever it is you want to share. Having your priorities straight and information at the ready demonstrates a level of competency and professionalism that CEOs remember down the road. If the CEO wants to then engage in lighter social talk from there, you can follow their lead and act accordingly.

“Every time you’re in front of the CEO or C-suite, you are being judged—consciously or not,” Apatoff says. “When a company is working on succession planning and looking at high-potential candidates, the C-Suite will often get together and discuss candidates collectively. Executive interactions you’ve had over the years will speak volumes about how buttoned up you are, your perceived maturity, how clear you are in your communications, how much command you have of your business, and ultimately, whether you are promoted.”

“CEOs are always looking for the best and strongest leaders they can find. That’s one of the most important jobs the CEO has. If you’re someone that has displayed the potential to be a leader, even in brief interactions, that speaks well for your future.”

— Rob Apatoff

Apatoff recalled his days at FTD and working on his own succession plan. He says he constantly kept an eye on talent a couple of tiers down in the organization, looking for effective managers who seemed capable of more.

“The more I saw leaders that truly were in command of their business, and could speak about potential ideas or innovations, the more rope I gave them,” Apatoff says. “CEOs are always looking for the best and strongest leaders they can find. That’s one of the most important jobs the CEO has. If you’re someone that has displayed the potential to be a leader, even in brief interactions, that speaks well for your future.”

So how do you keep yourself prepared to engage with a CEO? Apatoff recommends a habit he developed when he was leading a department: keep a list of bullet points that you can rattle off quickly. This list should include an overview of your department, key data points to support that overview, and an insight into how that relates to the company at large. He also kept a few of his own creative ideas in reserve, to show how he could be counted on to drive business in both conventional and unconventional ways.

Once you have that list put together, repeat those bullet points until they become as familiar as your favorite song lyrics, so that you are ready to recite them wherever, whenever.

“I always had a plan,” Apatoff says. “I wouldn’t always get an opportunity, but I would be prepared with information that was creative, relevant, and helpful to the business, when that opportunity appeared.”

Know When to Assert Yourself

One of your roles as an aspiring leader is to spot trouble—either in your unit or across the company—and show the initiative to escalate that information to leadership, preferably with a course of action to resolve the issue. If you uncover a challenge that is serious enough to impact the company, it’s your responsibility to inform the C-Suite or potentially the CEO.

This is when developing an ongoing dialogue with the CEO through periodic (even very brief) interactions—and being in command of your business when you do connect—pays off. As someone who has already attracted their attention and gained credibility, you stand a better chance of encountering a receptive CEO when you reach out.

“Few C-Suite leaders will accept an employee telling them, ‘I tried, but couldn’t get to you,’ as an excuse for not passing along vital information,” Apatoff says. “Whether it’s through the assistant or through their direct reports, there are always ways to inform the CEO of a potential problem or opportunity.”

For example, at a recent conference on security matters, several senior security executives mentioned to Apatoff that they were having difficulty communicating their important ideas to the C-Suite and CEO. Apatoff recommended they request 15 minutes on the agenda for an upcoming staff meeting with the CEO to discuss critical security issues.

“Occasionally integrating ideas and potential issues into staff meetings,” Apatoff says, “will allow you and the company to be better prepared for whatever may come up. If you don’t, and something actually happens, it may be too late.”

If you know you have a critical issue to discuss, but the CEO is not immediately available, Apatoff recommends reaching out to other C-Suite members, rather than waiting.

“By having the trust of the other C-suite and business P&L leaders, you will have a big head start on gaining the trust of the CEO.”

Featured Faculty

Executive Director, Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute; Clinical Professor of Executive Education

About the Writer
Glenn Jeffers is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
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