Hobnobbing with Corporate Major-Domos!
By Dilip Saraf on 01 Apr 2014
A client, who is a senior-level engineering manager at a Silicon Valley high-tech company, is an archetypal, immigrant, engineering manager (a shy, reticent INTJ, a bit socially awkward, but technically quite sharp, in his late 30s). He frantically called me the other day asking for help!
He was visiting his team in India to anoint a new manager that he had just hired from here to head his growing team and to announce some changes to his rapidly-growing team. His problem was that an Executive VP from the corporate (a $20B company) was also visiting that location and he had scheduled several hours to spend with my client and his growing team to “check them out.” Of course, the EVP had a full agenda for that day with many other stops to also review site operations.
My client’s problem was to keep this senior executive engaged for the few hours that the EVP had scheduled with him and his team, and to make a good impression at the same time. There was no one in between those two to rescue him if things were to go awry. My client was so apprehensive and uptight about this event that he felt that this would be a potential career suicide.
To get a better handle on my client’s concerns we decided to meet in person to assess the situation. To set the context, my client is from India and the executive, a Caucasian. The reason I bring this up is because in many such interactions (social and business) there is a natural apprehension around cultural differences. This is further compounded by what is also known as Power-Distance-Index (PDI).
Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Cultures that endorse low power distance expect and accept power relations that are more consultative or democratic (a good thing). Imprinting that exists as a result of cultural background inherent with people of different nationalities is often hard to overcome.
Purely from a position or rank difference PDI can be high (a bad thing) for those with Indian (and many other Asian) cultural backgrounds and that can get in the way of how a subaltern interacts with their superiors, even in a social situation. Despite my client’s being in the Silicon Valley (one of the lowest PDI cultures) for many years, he could not get past his early imprinting. Large PDI in a working environment can not only be just deleterious, but even fatal, as was found in the crash of Asiana Airlines’ Flight 214 landing in San Francisco on July 6, 2013, because the second officer was afraid to tell the captain something that he was doing very wrong.
Knowing well his personality I worked with my client to develop a script for that fateful event and when my client owned it he was comfortable with using it to not only get ready for the event, but to also use it to his advantage. Although the script we created was specific to my client and his needs I have generalized it here to include other situations (cultural, or otherwise), where two people with widely separated ranks are required to interact in a “social” setting. Here is what we scripted:
1. Create an agenda for the few hours my client was going to host this executive that would be focused on the background, status, and future plans for my client’s India team. Show him the agenda within the first few minutes of meeting him and ask for any changes that would make the executive’s time worthwhile. If he suggests some changes include them with the required emphasis. If the executive wants to completely depart from that agenda then work with him to make that change interesting with appropriate suggestions; take charge without asking for permission too many times. Remember, you are the host here. In this case no changes derailed my client’s plan, so my client was relieved that he could play out his script.
Generalized rule: Take charge and showcase a presentation to put yourself in the best light. Remember, you are the host here. The more confident you are about your approach the more successful you’ll be.
2. Introduce the executive to the team with an effusive preface so that the team knows the importance of this session and how they should interact with the executive.
Generalized rule: Regardless of the level at which you are introducing anyone in your company everyone likes to hear how great they are as a leader.
3. Make a short presentation to the whole team in the presence of the executive about the future plans for the team and what lies ahead. Keep the tone of this presentation upbeat. If you are shy of speaking just standing up, use PowerPoint and speak to the people in front of you, not to the screen. Make sure that your general tone is in synch with what the executive is going to say or has already said.
Generalized rule: Showcasing your leadership and projecting a positive message will help you come across as an assertive leader, both to your team and to the executive.
4. Make sure that the agenda includes some time for the executive to speak to the team either in a formal setting with him standing in front of your team or interacting with the team around a table, depending on the size of the team and other factors.
Generalized rule: Exposing the executive to the workings of your team will make them feel like they are a part of your team and your team will enjoy their bonhomie.
5. If the meeting time exceeds two hours organize some refreshments as a part of the setting to lubricate interactions within the team and with the executive. Formal meeting become less so whenever there are food and beverages involved.
Generalized rule: Show that you create camaraderie through casual exchanges where food and beverages are a part of your team’s socializing agenda. Off premises/off hours alcohol can be an option; offer it but stay away from it yourself.
6. If you get a chance to have a private one-on-one with the executive be positive and don’t hesitate to bring up your needs to move forward to align with the overall corporate agenda: If we want to grow our revenues in double digits, as you just announced to the team, we’re soon going to need some tools to help our development team with automation.
Generalized rule: Always keep the big picture in mind and seek help from the higher-ups to help them with their goals. In turn, you’re setting yourself up for success. If the discussions get in the personal realm always keep your guard up, no matter how personal they get!
7. When the visit is over send a warm thank you email to the executive citing some team members’ comments about their visit and how much it energized them.
Generalized rule: A well-crafted thank-you note can seal the impression you created during their visit and will also act as a way to seek closure on open or promised items (“Thank you, too, for your support in helping us get that Test Automation Suite.”)
I recently heard back from my client soon after he returned from his India trip about the success he had with his visit and how impressed the executive was; enough to send a note in kind about his visit to my client’s team.
So, dealing with skip-level executives can be seen as a benefit to your career rather than as a barrier. If you prepare well ahead of time it can be both fun and profitable.