If you want to be credible to a CEO, act like a peer.
What does it mean to act like a peer? It’s the way you show up and lead that says, “I understand my purpose, my value and my contribution. I know what I’m talking about and I’m confident I can do this.” It is also a way of acting and operating in the world where you don’t have to get everything right, be perfect, or impress everyone. In my work as an advisor and coach to CEOs and senior leaders, I’ve seen again and again how acting like a peer is absolutely essential to building credibility and having an impact at the executive level. Here’s the catch: It’s an easy idea to understand in theory, but in practice, there’s plenty that gets in the way. For instance:
Making it about you
A few years ago, I heard Emmy award-winning sports broadcaster Joe Buck share his lessons gained over years of delivering play-by-play coverage for the NFL and Major League Baseball. “Nobody cares,” is how Buck described those announcers who spend too much airtime showcasing their personal perspective. He’s clear that viewers tune in because of the game, not because of who is announcing it, so no surprise that his pet peeve is when his peers over-talk to show how much they know.
Even the best of us can get caught here. The pressure to make our point, to sell, and to impress, can overtake us, and we lock into our script. We end up talking too much about our solutions, our process, or giving more information, background, or context than needed. It becomes about us and misses that golden window to connect in a nuanced way. This is particularly true in situations that are new, risky, or even when we’re feeling out of our league (like a first executive team meeting or Board presentation), or when a really big decision is on the table (like getting buy in from a CEO to provide resources for your new project).
I once had a client who would over-prepare before every meeting with his CEO, spending countless hours working and reworking slides or reports, staying up late with his team in the days leading up to the meeting, as he considered every possible scenario he might encounter with the CEO. I’ve seen leaders invest huge amounts of time preparing for a short, two-minute employee video that they will script and read word-for-word, while their peers and colleagues speak off the cuff.
In both of these cases, the overpreparation ended up working against them, because at its core, it’s a strategy that’s about keeping safe, trying to be perfect, knowing everything, and playing not to lose. When people see an overprepared leader, fair or not, it raises questions about whether they have the confidence and ability to handle what it takes to lead. In practice, the overprepared leader can sound scripted, too rehearsed, or stay glued to notes or index cards instead of connecting with the audience. More important, they may miss the real point of the moment and lose the opportunity to truly connect and engage.
I once read an article that pointed out how we know far more about celebrities than they will ever know about us. A similar type of knowledge gap exists between most of us and the CEOs we work with, where our understanding or perspective about the same issue may be vastly different, for different reasons. It isn’t uncommon to assume that our CEOs have a deeper level of knowledge about an issue than is the case (sounds silly, but some of us consider CEOs to be omniscient), or to assume they care about an issue to the extent that we do. This is particularly true in cases where we’re disproportionately impacted or affected by a problem. We may be chomping at the bit to solve an issue, but we can’t assume the CEO shares our sense of urgency or even cares about the issue in the same way we do, if at all.
What happens when we assume? To others, it might look like we’re trying to influence by “persuading harder” or providing lots of explanation and information in an attempt to be understood. Unfortunately, this approach can backfire, because it sounds like forcing, pushing, where we appear tone deaf or show an inability to read the room. Here’s the irony: It is because we care and because we believe so strongly in something that these behaviors might show up, but they can undermine our ability to be heard.
Being overly deferential and people pleasing
People pleasing, even at executive levels, can be a tough habit to overcome, particularly in interactions with the CEO, and undermines our ability to be seen as a peer. It can come across as insecurity, a lack of savvy or ability read the room – any number of “non-executive” qualities. At an executive level, this might look like:
- Being overeager, jumping to speak, immediately answering a question before waiting a beat
- Trying too hard, with language like, “That’s a great point,” or, “I couldn’t agree more”
- Saying yes immediately to something without a plan to support how you’ll get there
- Hesitating to speak up and remaining quiet in meetings
- Leaving meetings with a long list of things you’ve promised to “look into” and “get back to people on,” rather than addressing concerns on the spot
- Overtalking, overexplaining
- “Presenting” with slides instead of talking and having a conversation
- Only speaking about your area of expertise
- Using deferential language like, “Thank you so much,” or, “I appreciate your time, I know how busy you are”
Senior executives don’t get into their roles by accident, but even the best leaders can undermine their own power and impact when they hold on to behaviors that no longer serve them. More important, they can undermine their own CEOs, who are relying on the strong leadership from their executives, now more than ever. The good news is that acting like a peer doesn’t require a change in role or title, and it is something that you can practice, meeting by meeting, bit by bit. When you do, the payoff is big. You lead courageously, as yourself.