How to Get More Invitations to the C-Suite and Be Heard Part 2

Be Quick, Be Careful, Be Candid, Have a Management Mindset

My practical and empirical knowledge combined with the research of others demonstrates consistently that bosses expect these crucial attributes and behaviors from trusted strategic advisors: 

  • Real-Time Advice: Typically, staff advisors come to listen to their leadership then, head back to their office to figure out how to help them or if they can. The trusted strategic advisor gives cogent advice on the spot without having to leave the room. 
  • Candor: Truth with an attitude delivered immediately. Something that Public Relations practitioners have difficulty with as evidenced by the recent research by Dr. Marlene Neill revealing ten troublesome issues that practitioners face every day. If your reaction to this definition is, “Jim, you don’t know my boss!” That’s probably true, but it’s time to leave the organization if your boss has a problem with candor.  
  • Coach at Every Opportunity: This is really what one of the greatest values we provide to those we advise. Coaching rather than having a specific answer for things, is the art of options, and suggestions, that is offering three approaches to respond to an issue or question before management.
  • Consequence Analysis, Being Insightful: This is the trusted strategic advisors greatest challenge, to be more than relevant, and to be able to comment on much broader areas than just what the news media is going to be doing or thinking.
  • Knowing What is Important: Senior people, contrary to their behavior, are interested in input on what they should be dealing with and should be thinking about or in fact are dealing with or thinking about. How does one find this out? Ask and keep asking. Be an intelligence collector and sharer.
  • Early Warning: Another value of the trusted strategic advisor is their knowledge of what’s happening throughout the organization. Rather than being the first to acknowledge what others have revealed or spoken about, your credibility is really built on being the first person to alert management to issues and questions they need to be concerned about. When I asked top leaders what the worst problem is they face every day, almost unanimously it is, “Being the last to know.” The trusted strategic advisor worth their salt, skips all those filters, sidetracks, and barriers to information and brings intelligence information immediately to the attention of top people.
  • What To Do Next: Seems ironic but one of the great problems in leadership is knowing what to do and what the next steps are. In dozens and dozens of conversations over the years with leaders and managers who were having difficulties, offhand I would say 90% of the problem came from really not knowing what to do next and not being able to get some reasonable advice on what those actions and decisions and problems should be or are. This questions actually is at the top of every leaders list, “What the heck do I do now?” One of the great techniques of the trusted strategic advisor is the, “What if” exercise. What if this happened? What if that happened? What would you do? What would you say? What would you decide? What is the first step you should take? If you can play a role in the, “What’s next?” game. You’ll be among the first to be invited to every important meeting.

Now, let’s talk about the current reality.  

The purpose of examining this list is a way of analyzing yourself, how you operate, what you think about yourself, and how you approach the task of being a trusted strategic advisor.

This is hard but please listen up.

Public Relations tends to rely on what I call the Liar’s List of communication tactics. This is the tendency to avoid positive declarative, definitive, evidence-supported communication in favor of nine alternative communication strategies:

  • Allegories
  • Analogies
  • Euphemisms
  • False Comparisons
  • Lies
  • Metaphors
  • Similes
  • Stories
  • Verbal Translation, “In other words…”.

Each of these techniques are obvious attempts to state anything but the simple plain truth. This is the list liars use by those with whom we disagree or who are disagreeable. The two most abused of these techniques are metaphors, explaining something and using a substitute reality, and stories, which unlike life, have obvious beginnings, middles, and ends, usually attention-getting opening, statements, and a conclusion in the form of a lesson, message, conclusion, punch-line, insight, moral, or self-evident truth. If only life would behave this way.

The whole problem with stories is that they are completely artificial (euphemism for lies). Life does not have a sensible beginning, middle, or end, A Situation rarely starts with snappy opening headlines and rarely concludes with the definitive statement of purpose, accomplishment, or an obvious ending. They are fabrications. The truths of stories are almost always fabricated. So now you’re asking me, “What if a story is half true…?” Half a truth is always all lie.

Too often, one of the biggest values senior executives can count on us for is our skill in creating an alternative universe of information about something that may be difficult, unpleasant, or unwanted to communicate. That is intentional untruthfulness.

The goal has to be candor.

Be More Careful

  1. Our function has a reputation for avoiding conflict and candor. This is one of the reasons we’re often left out of important meetings at senior levels. If the issue is important, management is still taught to arrive at important decisions through conflict and aggressive argument. If that makes you feel uncomfortable it shows quickly and without mentioning anything to you, you will be automatically excluded from meetings where intensive discussions take place. Advising leaders requires a tough stomach.
  2. Also, we tend to avoid naming what we see, or worse, we find ways to euphemize and therefore avoid getting the benefits of candor and clarity. Anger, even violent anger being described as, “Tempers boiling over…” or, “Softening harsh language. Truth is usually blunt and hard.
  3. Our inability or unwillingness to accurately and dispassionately assess skills, competence, strengths, and weaknesses of other members of the senior team and staff. We don’t have much of a taste for evaluating the skills of others the way senior executives must. Most of the major business problems organizations face are created by people in positions of importance. If there’s one thing that most senior leaders need it is staff who can accurately, helpfully, and purposefully assess strengths, weaknesses, shortcomings, skills, apititudes, accessibility, and other attributes of those on the senior team including themselves. If that responsibility tends to make you uncomfortable, you become less valuable in everything else you do for the senior team.
  4. The notion that we are an organization’s conscience. This is a pretty big and important burden. One of these days I hope that someone actually defines or lays out a job description of corporate conscience. The idea seems to work in some organizations. I’ll be writing about this in a future Jim’s Wisdom. Many of those who consider themselves corporate consciences also consider themselves experts in ethics. Sometimes accurate, but often oversimplified.  

Changing the Management Mindset

A number of years ago I was a senior advisor to a fortune company going through a very devastating criminal proceeding. People had died, were injured, the behavior of certain individuals at the company was intentional, several were prosecuted and six went to prison. The Chairman was acquitted during the trial and retired.

The company itself, however, took it’s problems seriously and worked to begin to understand how a company this successful and this important, saving lives every day could get into the mess that they had.

They hired several forensic compliance consultants to interview many employees to get a sense of what employees expected of company leadership during times of crisis. Here is that list. For those of you who act as corporate consciences, I urge you to examine this list and see if you could actually deliver useful advice to senior management based on employee expectations.

Employee Expectations of Leadership During
Emergencies and Tough Times (i.e. All the Time)

a. Find the truth as soon as possible: Tell that truth and act on it immediately.

b. Promptly raise the tough questions and answer them thoughtfully: This includes asking and answering questions yet to be asked or thought of by those who will be affected by whatever the circumstance is.

c. Teach by a truthful parable: Emphasizing wrong-way and right-way lessons.

d. Vocalize core business values and ideals constantly: These include the values and ideals, the ways and behaviors that employees bring to work each day.

e. Walk the talk: Be accessible; help people understand the organization within the context of its values and ideals at every opportunity.

f. Help, expect, and enforce ethical leadership: People are watching; people are counting; people know when there are lapses in ethics causing trust to be broken. When bad things happen in good organizations, it’s those occasional lapses that deepen the troubles.

g. Preserve, protect, defend, and foster ethical pathways to the top of the organization: Constantly identify, explain, explore, and warn about situations where ethical processes can be compromised, especially among executives who are on upward career trajectories.

h. Be a cheerleader, model, and teacher of ethical behavior: Ethical behavior builds and maintains trust. In fact, to have trust in an organization requires that its leaders act ethically constantly.

i. Make values as least as important as profits: Research shows that most people seem to enjoy working more when they are with organizations they respect, people they trust, leadership they can rely on, and who respect them. Wherever you find an organization or company that puts values on the same level as profits, there is often even more loyalty and support because companies who do this sacrifice for principle. Everybody notices and wants to be a part of these kinds of organizations.

j. Be respected: Research also shows that respect is more desired by employees than any number of perks and preferences. Respect is what draws employees back to work each day.