What C-Level execs *hate* to hear…


This is the first part in a multi-part string regarding “truth to power”.  I think I first heard that phrase in a West Wing episode, someone asking a potential hire about their ability to be direct with the President.  I thought to myself, hell, sure *I* can do that easy! – which is probably what got me in so much trouble in so many jobs.

See, anyone who is reckless enough or “brave” (read: naive) enough to be direct and open with leadership can do so.  But it takes another layer of nuance to be successful when speaking truth to power.  What’s the goal?  What’s the atmosphere?  What will the reaction be?  How do you craft that message in a way that it will be best received?

It’s not always easy.  Not every manager wants to hear the truth, no matter how massaged it might be before arrival.  Not always will your “truth” be their “truth”.  It is a complex process, and a delicate one.

To my headline:  in all my years, the phrase that gets CIOs, CEOs, CFOs the most riled up is “they don’t care about us”.  This phrase almost always comes up when there’s a contract negotiation going on, or when a firm is requesting something special from a vendor.

I have heard this phrase from an accountant at a 20-person law firm.  I have heard this phrase from the CIO of Isuzu.  The answer is no.  They don’t care about you.  And it drives execs insane.

“Don’t they know how much we spend with them?”  “Don’t they know we’ve been doing business for X years?” “Don’t they know how influential we are?”

It’s human nature.  In that firm, they *are* important.  Movers.  Shakers.  Etc.  They’re used to getting their way.  But that circle of power has a very clearly defined edge.  It was always weird for me, as a VAR, to walk into a big firm, and see the aura of deference given to the top executives, and being immune to it.  To me, they were just another guy at just another firm, but to their staff, they held the ability to hire and fire.

So if you’ve gone to a vendor, asked for something, and they said no, the answer is, they don’t care.  Vendors don’t like saying no.  It doesn’t come easy.  Whoever your firm’s contact person is, they ran it up the ladder at least one rung making sure it was OK to say no.  So the vendor has weighed the options, and decided no.

There are ways to determine your importance.  This can be directly measured by the amount of resources a vendor assigns to you.  If you have a *dedicated* account manager – or better yet, a dedicated account team – you’re important.  If HP has a technician with a one-to-one mirror of your CEO’s home server setup for help with troubleshooting, you’re important.

So you’re saying, great, we know we’re not important, now what?  The big hurdle is acknowledging that and moving past it – and figuring out how to game the system.

First, maximize your purchase power.  I’m a big believer in consolidating spending when possible.  You may still be tiny in the big picture, but you’re important to a sales rep somewhere.

Second, if you like to have lots of influence over vendors, pick very small ones.  I speak from experience when I say that small vendors will jump through hoops that large ones wouldn’t even blink at.

Third – leverage *their* needs.  This comes in two forms.  The easiest is end-of-quarter and end-of-year quotas.  You suddenly become a lot more visible on their radar when they have a number they absolutely, positively have to hit – and you’re the one who can get them there.

This goes for non-sales metrics for your rep as well – i.e, onsite visits, lunch and learns, etc – find out what they’re measured on, and how you can help them with their internal numbers.

Fourth – try to form personal relationships.  Have lunch meetings.  Get to know your rep.  With a personal connection, they’ll fight just that much harder for your request.

Using one or more of these methods can help you increase your firm’s leverage, and help your exec (or you) get what they want.