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Coach's Corner: March 3, 2008

Take steps to overcome uneasiness around executives

The Client
Name: Kelly
Age: 44
Title: Enterprise program manager
Years in business: 15 (one in current role)
Industry: Manufacturing
Issue: Interacting successfully with executives
Q. I am in a new role that requires significant interaction with executives, and I’m not very comfortable with rubbing shoulders with CEOs and other C-level executives at this point. Besides the usual acknowledgement that we all put our pants (or pantyhose) on one leg at a time, how can I become less intimidated and more at ease? 

Many of us have felt as if we’re looking up at people at the executive level — not a comfortable position. One way to address this is to reframe them as colleagues and people with whom we can build a sense of shared community. This will help you move away from the sense of separateness that you’re expressing and into a sense of relationship.

The inner game
To start, explore the source of your intimidation. What are your assumptions about people with higher titles — and your assumptions about yourself? Logically, you probably don’t think that executives have more value as humans, but your feelings may disagree. You may be afraid that interaction carries risks; look deeply into what those risks might be, and challenge your assumptions. Your goal is to bring yourself to a feeling of equality with those higher in the organization. This isn’t necessarily easy, but will be very helpful to you.

The outer game
Now it is time to plan steps to build relationships with the C-level people around you.

Step 1: Do your research.
Spend some time learning about the executives you’d like to know better. Learn about what they care about outside of work by finding which boards they are on, where they make donations, or where they volunteer. Talk to others who know them about their interests. Then, identify areas where you share an interest. For example, perhaps you’re both involved with Habitat for Humanity. Or you may have children with similar interests. These are starting points for connection.

Step 2: Create opportunities.
The easiest thing to do when you’re nervous is to retreat. Instead, create opportunities to engage with the executives in your organization. If you’re invited to social events after meetings, by all means, attend! Try to arrange lunches with members of the executive team, or chat with them before and after meetings. Remember your insights into their interests, and plan some conversational openers.

Step 3: Be curious.
As you get into the conversation, let your natural curiosity about other people take over. Forget about titles and positions, and let the interaction be one between peers with common ground. Odds are that your counterpart will also engage appreciatively in the conversation.

Here’s a hint: If you start to get anxious, take a few deep breaths. This will help you calm down and stay present in the conversation.

The last word
These steps will work for building connection with anyone, not just executives. And as you get more comfortable, you’ll feel more natural finding common ground and building bonds — a great contribution to your portfolio of leadership skills. 

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted March 3, 2008
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