For various reasons, so many people feel reluctant to reach out to senior executives in their organization. But their reasons are, in fact, assumptions. They assume these leaders are too busy, don’t want to waste time with them, and wouldn’t be interested in what they have to say.
Yes, senior leaders are busy, but many appreciate the opportunity to mentor others and share their wisdom. Like any executive focused on results, they want their dealings with others to be meaningful and productive, and above all, they don’t want to do all the work in the relationship. The more you prepare for conversations with them and show initiative, the more willing senior leaders will be to meet with you.
The first step to establishing a relationship is selecting an entry point, keeping in mind that one approach does not fit all. Think about the values, interests, and competencies you respect in the leader. If you’ve noticed they have a unique ability you’d like to develop, you could ask if they’d be willing to share their approach.
Sherri noticed a senior executive in her company was especially effective at lessening tension when parties disagree. Wanting to be more competent in this area, she made notes about how the leader handled these situations and approached him for more tips. She shared her notes on what she had observed him doing, which impressed the leader and demonstrated her genuine interest. The leader went on to fill in some elements she had not noticed, giving Sherri a fuller, more methodical understanding of his approach. She expressed her appreciation for his time and insights and asked if she could check in with him once a month for follow-up ideas and feedback. The leader agreed and their relationship has developed to the point where he now shares advice with Sherri on a wide range of issues.
Another approach is to ask a senior leader to help you understand how the project you and your team are working on fits into the organization’s overall strategy. Explain that you can increase your team members’ motivation if they understand the bigger picture. Leaders are usually happy when people want to get clarity on their strategy, so this is an easy request for them to fulfill. As you listen, think about how you can engage the leader further: perhaps they would be willing to speak briefly at your next team meeting or maybe there are other opportunities where you could hear the leader speak. Each interaction with a leader sets the stage for further relationship building. And be sure to follow up with a thank you message noting how the information they shared helped your team.
Some of my clients have had success building relationships by supporting causes their leader champions. In addition to doing good, the time spent together can be rewarding professionally. When Carrie learned that a female leader in her organization supported a women’s shelter, Carrie asked how she could help. But Carrie wasn’t feigning interest to curry favor; Carrie believed in the cause, so she was delighted to get involved, collecting business attire for women going back into the workforce and developing fundraising appeals. Carrie got to know the leader well while they worked together at the shelter. Their conversations naturally turned to work topics and the leader was willing to share her experience with Carrie. Although the leader moved to another organization, she and Carrie stayed in touch. Carrie feels the leader’s guidance helped her navigate the organization more successfully than she would have on her own.
Of course, one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to get to know senior leaders is to participate in sporting events together. One leader is a member of a golfing group called Chicks with Sticks where she and leaders from other organizations get to know younger women in the industry and offer support and mentoring during a round of golf. In this relaxed setting, it’s easy to get to know each other and find areas of common interest.
When seeking to build relationships with senior executives, there are also some pitfalls to avoid. The first one is simple: make sure the area you’re interested in getting their help is one the leaders have competency in. You don’t want to put them in the uncomfortable position of having to confess their skills are weak in that area. Second, don’t ask for too much too soon or you will appear pushy and the relationship one-sided. Your initial approach should involve a request that is easy for the leader to say yes to. Only after the relationship has developed should you consider asking the leader to introduce you to someone else or make a request that requires more time or political capital from the leader. Another major misstep is building relationships with leaders in your direct reporting chain. The last thing you want is to look like you’re going around your immediate boss to establish a stronger relationship with your boss’s boss. Both your boss and the leader would be right to question your motives. Finally, don’t expect the leader to know what you need or how you should shape your career. That is your job. But you can ask for advice on which option to consider after you’ve discussed your goals.
When you are thoughtful and intentional you are more likely to build a meaningful relationship. Spend time thinking about why you want to establish a relationship with a leader and how you can make it beneficial for both of you. Always ask what you can do to help the leader and be open to the possibility of connecting the leader to someone in your network. A two-way relationship — in both your personal and professional life — is always stronger.