Here is a riddle: Picture a conference room with a meeting underway. There are twelve chairs around the table and eleven people in the room, leaving one empty chair. With this information, how do you tell who the CEO is?
If you answered the person sitting next to the empty chair, you solved the riddle. People do not want to sit next to the boss. Occasionally you’ll get a brave soul, but only until that person gets some crap about kissing up to the boss. You’ll see the same behavior when you attend a dinner with your team.
I was facilitating a high-level strategy session in the southern region of the country with a high-end technology company. This was a well-run, second generation, cutting-edge kind of organization that could advance concepts quickly and had a great platform for adding services. In my pre-session discovery, I kept getting strange vibes from the executive team members. They were all young, boyish looking kids, including the CEO, who had recently purchased the business from his father and was an extremely capable engineer.
The first day of our two-and-a-half day strategic planning session went off without a hitch. There was good discovery, common information, and a good historical look at themselves. While they had an incredible platform, a great technological leader who had its engineering practice down cold, their sales were just not getting any traction and they were not able to leverage their platform. In fact, a competitor with more money but less intelligence was gaining some ground on them and creating a large threat. I planned to dig deep into the sales program on day two and I was already forming some ideas about how to help them.
That evening, they invited my colleague Sharon and me out to dinner with the team. I usually have a strict rule that we do not engage in any outside evening plans with our clients and we rarely have dinner with them. Instead we retreat and let them blow off some steam without having the resident consultants hovering about. But something was bugging me after that first day, and I wanted to watch these guys in a lighter setting to see if I could figure it out.
It was one of those hot muggy southern nights—I was sweaty and my voice was raw from talking all day. The only thing I could think of was an ice cold beer and Sharon was right there with me. We were late arriving at the barbeque joint and the team was already there, laughing and joking. Sharon and I slid into a booth and when the waitress came to take our order I said, “Two of the coldest beers you can find, I’m parched.”
In an instant something changed. All conversation ceased; even the waitress stared at us as though she was seeing a ghost. In several moments of extremely awkward silence, Sharon and I locked eyes, as if to say to each other, “Did you do something? Did I do something?” Eventually conversation started back up, our beer came, and we placed our dinner orders.
Soon after the vice president of sales slid into our booth and said very quietly, “Now you know what I’m up against.” The owner and the majority of employees were strict religious folks who did not drink, dance, smoke, gamble or in any way engage in activities that they did not consider to be in line with their beliefs. Admirable qualities for sure, and since the team carried the same beliefs and values structure, it worked well for them.
That said, one of their biggest challenges was that their competition was known as the party kings and queens of the industry, happy to take you out for a weekend in Las Vegas, or on an exotic vacation, if you were in their fold of customers.
The fact is if you want to sell into mainstream America, you’ve got to either play the game or be happy with less than. We eventually encouraged this company to hire a vice president of sales that had an expense account where he was permitted to entertain clients in a more mainstream manner. They leased an office for him in California and rarely invited him back to the corporate office. Business picked up, and today they enjoy a majority of their industry market. I don’t credit their success with wining and dining clients—I credit their success with removing roadblocks that allow them to achieve their goals without directly sacrificing their culture.
The big lesson here, however, is much broader: It’s always about the people. There are some very basic rules that a CEO must follow in order to fully understand the organization and although they are simple, failing to execute on any one of them will ultimately spell disaster. The building of relationships and the process of building relationships within the culture is the most important job a CEO faces. I recommend five simple steps in building effective relationships with your team. They are:
- Contact: You have to get out and meet them individually and it has to be in their arena, not sitting across from you in your office which can be the most intimidating seat in the house. Walk into their workspace. Give them the opportunity to show you their space and their support staff. You make no progress sitting in your office all day waiting for them to come to you.
- Commonality: This should be baked into the system, but the fact is you are first together to do great work and this should make finding things in common relatively easy. The trick here is that it’s up to you to relate to them, not the other way around. Finding something in common with others, even if it’s only work-related, is paramount to successful relationships that are enduring.
- Credibility: In training sessions with young executives, I always use the same lesson. I put my hands in front of my face and moving them from one side to the other, I advise that every time you see a person, they are judging you as credible or not credible according to their own sense of value. You have to be able to do whatever it is you say you can do in order to have credible relationships. One case of “not credible” for a CEO can spell disaster. Being credible over and over again is what supports enduring relationships.
- Confidence: This is pretty simple. Kind of. If you are offered enough opportunities to be credible to your team, eventually they will begin to follow you even if they are scared, intimidated, or unsure. Initially they will follow you because you’re the boss and they have a greater fear of being fired than following you, but as the relationship grows in credibility they will follow you because they believe in you.
- Trust: Remember in the previous point when I said they would follow you? When the relationship begins to be even more credible with time, you are not afraid to let them lead the way and they are not afraid to step out and become leaders themselves. That’s the ultimate success level for an executive team. As a CEO, you will be lucky to have that experience even one time in your career, but you should never stop looking for it.