There is an old story about an apprentice and master that speaks of the perils of dealing with the ‘C-Suite’.
One day an apprentice met with his guru. The master said, “Go get me a rock.”
So the dutiful apprentice rushed out, found a lovely grey stone and brought it back to the master.
“No, not that rock,” was all the master said.
The apprentice quickly left for the rock quarry and returned with an even more beautiful stone.
Shaking his head, the master looked upon the stone and said, “no, not that rock.”
The apprentice – now a bit confused and irritated – set out for the third time. After an exhaustive search, the apprentice returned.
“No, not that rock,” was the master’s reply.
In utter frustration, the apprentice cried out, “So what kind of rock do you want?”
And as the master smiled, the apprentice realized the lesson of the day had been taught: You need to have the mettle to ask if you don’t understand.
As talent leaders, our quest with senior line executive are not about finding acceptable quarry stones. Our mission is mining the right talent for the enterprise. But often stepping up to partnering with ‘C-suite’ leaders can be as frustrating and confusing as a vague rock-requesting master.
Consider a recent reflection from Ed Cohen, a well-traveled and quite savvy senior talent executive. A few years back he thought he was off to a strong start as the newly named Chief Learning Officer with a large, dynamic company in India.
Using the partner-with-the-CEO approach he fine-tuned with his last company, he meet with the Indian CEO for a wide-ranging conversation about talent and learning possibilities. Ed recalls that with a number of ideas, the CEO nodded and smiled, responding with a quite affirming, “that’s interesting!” Ed remembered that his last CEO used “that’s interesting” as the green light to go.
Ed quickly returned to the CEO and presented a comprehensive set of specific proposals to set their ideas into motion.
Rather than giving Ed the green light, the CEO just nodded and smiled, saying “that’s interesting” and ushering Ed to the door. Later Ed was told that in the new place, “that’s interesting” is the CEO’s polite way of saying no.
In other words, Ed brought back the wrong rock.
Forging a working relationship with a senior executive is can be quite a trial. Talent leaders need to bring the confidence and competence to gain respect in the ‘C-Suite”. Yet the unspoken rules are quite different and a new partnership savvy is needed.
What Ed and the rock apprentice learned is that we shouldn’t take things at face value and see every ‘C-suite’ encounter the same. In fact, I’ve experienced three very distinctive ‘rock-finding’ executive meetings. Each situation requires a different strategy to succeed.
The first setting is what I call a ‘blue sky’ meeting where the executive is just ‘thinking out-loud’ and exploring possibilities with no expectation of action. This is what Ed faced with his new CEO. The savvy talent executive should contribute to the free-wheeling brainstorming but end the meeting with a courageous question: Do you want me to do further work right now with anything we discussed?
The second setting is the ‘strategic planning’ discussion where the senior executive expects the talent leader to bring concrete thoughts and specifics on what the execution of an idea would look like. The right question to successfully wrap up the meeting is: Do you have enough information to give us a ‘green light’ to begin implementation?
The third setting is the ‘project update’ check-in where the idea is in motion and the executive expects a briefing on the talent project status. The ending question should be: “Are you comfortable with our progress right now?”
Gurus and ‘C-suite’ executives are an odd bunch. Sometimes they don’t say what they mean or what they want. Our job is to read each setting right and ask the courageous questions. Otherwise, we’ll exhaust ourselves traveling back and forth from the rock quarry.
(c.) Kevin D. Wilde 2016