Understanding the Executive Perspective
Breaking news…executive leaders typically do not reveal publicly the problems that keep them up at night. The competitive corporate environment mimics realty TV requiring careful navigation of political, regulatory and cultural constraints. The ever increasing speed of information and disinformation provides a strong incentive to maintain a closed door approach to sharing knowledge and information. This provides a significant challenge for solution oriented services firms seeking to identify the right problems to engage in providing value for executive leaders.
Today’s corporate environment is ripe with opportunities for professional services firms to help support customers in solving real and meaningful problems. Too often, the typical sales approach focuses on selling the newest and greatest product or consulting team – ignoring the prevalent client gripes of “you don’t know me and you don’t know my business”. While productized approaches can be direct and sometimes effective, the real value is left on the table by not providing executive leaders with the opportunity or reason to reveal their open and honest thoughts into the challenges and problems being faced with today. Understanding stakeholder expectations and the business environment facing executive leaders requires more than just asking the right questions, it is about sustaining an open mind when listening for the right answers.
For the most part, executive leaders have the information required to define their problems and determine the right answers. What prevents an individual or team from selecting the right answer is the continual inundation of information, outside recommendations and touted “best solution” by parties with an agenda other than solving the right problems. The real issue at hand is not to provide answers and solutions to corporate leaders. Instead, focus on extracting the information and answers that are kept close to the chest and amongst trusted partners. Long-term success depends upon ensuring executive leaders sustain ownership of the problem and solution.
Forging Sustainable Partnerships
Success in society is often attributed to being agile and quick to identify and act upon opportunities. The ugly truth is most people are not that adept at listening, let alone do they know what they should be listening for. Continued professional education and personal development are only a part of the journey to becoming a professional problem-solver. However, the most challenging part of the journey to becoming a successful problem solver is being able to listen and identify value not from your perspective but that of executive leadership.
As the famous consulting joke goes, if you are not a part of the solution, there is good money to be made in prolonging the problem. Too often professional service firms fail to live up to over sales promises and claims of solution fit for the customer’s environment. This inherently keeps executive leaders skeptical with little reason to trust otherwise. Becoming a trusted advisor is the hard road requiring an open mind, industry proof points and more importantly time to listen and ask meaningful questions aimed at immediate needs and long term business aspirations. Professional services firms must provide executive leaders with a reason to trust and invitation to listen in confidence discovering the larger value long-term problems.
Executive leaders present an interesting business dilemma for professional services firms. They indirectly require firms to proclaim to what level they intend to develop a business relationship. Deep relationships are required to realize benefits from addressing the larger value long-term problems. In contrast, targeting smaller value easily identifiable problems does not require a trusted partnership in achieving success for the company. The chosen intent significantly changes the purpose and approach in discovering the right problems. Professional service firms focused on addressing the “right” problems invest time and reputation into developing strong relationships with executive leaders. Becoming a trusted advisor is essential to gaining access to the highly valuable and confidential thoughts and ideas key to long term growth and sustainability.
Promoting “Honest” Executive Answers
The challenge in active listening is about knowing which problems are merely symptoms to an underlying issue. The existence of a problem does not constitute a required resolution. Hence, actively listening to the executive leadership perspective requires the ability to engage and challenge responses to achieve full discovery of potential issues. Partnering with executive leaders is significantly more likely through focused discovery sessions and collaborative painting of a “picture of success”.
Successful value propositions incorporate a balance of quantifiable (hard) and qualifiable (soft) benefits. Hard numbers are what drive objective business growth, but it is the soft intangible ideas and innovations that enable evolutionary leaps in business success. Executive leaders need both perspectives captured and effectively presented to build stakeholder consensus. Professional services firms provide industry best practices and lessons learned in the form of conceptual “solution canvas”. These models and frameworks provide an effective “starting point” for listening, compiling and collaborative iteration of executive leader insights and ideas.
In any creative process, the audience must maintain an open mind and be prepared for the unexpected. Initial focus on “short-term” value elements should be paired with “long-term” concepts. This will ensure adequate attention is given to the holistic business case incorporating primary, secondary and potentially additional benefits. As initial discussions will be slow to progress, iterations should be expected to violently advance. Setting some expectations up front, it should not be a surprise if the original value proposition iterates to a completely different path to success. The key ingredient to the process will be ensuring an open mindset drives the development of partnership amongst executive leadership. Ultimately, it is the executive leadership perspective not an interpretation that must be captured to realize value.
Sample “Solution Canvas” Concept to Seed Executive Leadership Discussion