Executives are People, Too: Tips for Working with Execs

What is it about the word “executive” that makes many of us nervous? Why is it so difficult to walk into a C-level person’s office and have a conversation?

The executives at your company are people just like you, but their responsibilities and stresses are vastly different from yours, which can make you feel that you’re walking on eggshells when you speak with them.

How you operate with your manager isn’t how you operate with the CEO, founder, or co-founder. And how you speak with these folks isn’t how you speak with the members of your team.

Working with people with “big” titles isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. And while it’s smart business to realize you do need to work with them differently than you work with your team or even your peers, that doesn’t mean you need to completely change the way you act when in front of that title.

Remember that execs are people, too, and so, treat them as such. As people.

And then, guess what? You’re already doing better than most of your peers. Because you’re seeing leaders with big titles as just people.

Why Does It Matter? Why Do You Need to Consider Your Behavior When Working with Executives?

No matter the size or type of the organization you work for, it’s likely you will need to interface with people of greater influence than you.

How you operate in these interactions can affect your role: positively or negatively.

It can also positively or negatively affect your reputation, which can be even more important because that can have a direct effect on your role, your salary, and your opportunities, both within your current organization, and anywhere else you might go.

Whether it’s the owner of the salon or cafe where you work, the founder of the startup where you work, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, learning how to act when faced with an executive is a skill for every employee. It’s a skill that, once you’ve learned it, will serve you well for the rest of your career.

How Do I Communicate with Executives?

Even though each executive is different, how you work with them is generally universal, and once you learn how to work with one executive, you’ll be able to work with almost all of them. So here’s how to handle yourself.

First, go in prepared. This is really the most basic premise of working with higher-level executives, and also one of the most important.


Figure out what the executive will ask you, be ready with those answers, then go a little deeper. Even if you end up with more information than you need, which you should, knowing that you’re prepared for most anything the meeting will bring will give you extra confidence.

So be ready.

Be ready to share the who, the what, the why, the when, and the how. Provide concrete
details that are necessary for the executive to make a decision.

And, stick with the facts. A vivid emotional reaction will deflate your strategic value. If you are asked for your opinion, state it, but save your emotional reaction and your strong judgments for your manager and your closest peers.

Be professionally friendly. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that execs are so busy that they don’t have time for some fundamental pleasantries.

A very common mistake many of us make is using the get-in-and-get-out approach. It’s perfectly appropriate and most of the time even desirable that you spend a minute or two establishing rapport. Doing so establishes you as savvy and confident.

Remember, executives are human, just like you.

You wouldn’t expect a conversation, even a professional conversation, to start right in with no preamble or pleasantries, and neither will the executives you’re working with.

After establishing rapport, be clear with what you need: state why you are in the room. Make your reasons for setting up the meeting crystal clear.

Do you need a decision, approval, or an opinion? For example, “Madhu, I set up this meeting for you to approve the decisions I’ve made on our new product line.” Or “Ed, I need your opinion… “

Keep in mind you may not get a very specific answer to your request. You also may not get an instant answer. Either of these things is ok.

If the answer you’re receiving isn’t clear, you may need to think on your feet on whether you should probe further or go back to your desk and ask your manager to interpret the broad answer you received.

With these planning tips in mind, you can and will be better prepared for a meeting with an executive.

Then, there is one piece of advice I want to leave you with.

My Secret . . .

To learn more about the executive’s behaviors, preferences, and quirks, the best
resource is the executive’s administrative assistant.

If this person doesn’t offer this info, ask what days of the week—and times—are best to reach out, what the executive’s preferences are for follow up (for example, should you cc his admin), and how you can help the admin help him.

People tend to overlook this resource, but the executive’s admin is truly the best option. He or she knows everything, close to absolutely everything, in the executive’s professional life, and they usually control the calendar as well.

Getting onto this person’s good side is your best way to get in good with the executive.

And, again, be yourself. You don’t need to suck up or be fake. Saying hello to the admin by name when you see them, asking after their family, offering to help if you see that they’re struggling with something work-related – all of these will go a long way toward making a positive impression on the admin, which will add to your positive impression with the executive.

And if there is no admin to plan a strategy with, remember you already have another great resource to help you prepare for an executive-level meeting: your own manager. Don’t forget to ask that person for insight and planning help.