April 12, 2023
Establish Executive Presence or You’re Toast
Today’s edition of the Enterprise Sellers newsletter addresses a mysterious concept I often get questions about: Executive Presence.
This is an issue because doing big deals in big accounts rests on the fact that sellers must find ways to engage senior customer stakeholders. And many of them feel inadequate or ill prepared to hold their own in conversation with executives who have been in senior roles for years.
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For many sellers, engaging a customer executive in a business dialogue feels like a mismatch.
David and Goliath.
Kung Fu master vs. the grasshoppah.
It’s a natural fear because so much of today’s enterprise selling has evolved upward to address management concerns to unlock budget and priority.
The enterprise sale is the executive sale. This is because:
- Sales are down for everyone - including our customers.
- Because sales are down, so is spending, and the spending that remains is considered super risky, so in today’s environment - spend of any kind is scrutinized more heavily than ever before.
- Which leaves ‘doing more with less’ as the new normal. So it takes even more support from senior management to get any spend approved.
- Large deals need to fit right in the bullseye of business transformation projects, which are owned by senior executives.
What is Executive Presence?
Simply put, executive presence is an impression that one leaves senior stakeholders that inspires confidence, control, vision and capacity. That the path they point to is the right path, it is achievable and they know how to get there.
Executive presence is a mix of mental, emotional and physical characteristics.
- Mental sharpness
- Emotional evenness and control
- Physical calm and confident body language
Why is executive presence important?
Because when selling to other executives, the customer executive(s) need to feel they are working with a peer, that that peer is credible and worthy of listening to and engaging with.
Customer executives are looking for operational efficiency ninja moves and bright ideas on how to manage better business outcomes during a challenging economic climate. They are taking meetings, hearing ideas and vetting their merit.
When you get an executive audience to hear you out, if you can’t establish credibility and what I call ‘peer business status’ in the first meeting/call, one of two things will happen:
1.You will be delegated to subordinates with no further access to the executive (still in the game but playing with the junior varsity team).
2. You will have blown your one and only chance and no further engagement will be supported (out of the game).
There are seven elements of executive presence.
1. Subject matter expertise - the greatest source of confidence is deep knowledge in one area of expertise. When you know something deeply, you can speak to it effortlessly and without preparation.
2. Financial literacy - Financial literacy is the language of executives. They are the ratios and percentages that quantify the extent of the problem or the desired or achieved improvements under discussion. Without the ability to name them and use them in the context of your value story, your premise will be fluffy and not be taken seriously.
3. Business acumen - is keenness and quickness in understanding and dealing with a business situation (risks and opportunities) in a manner that is likely to lead to a good outcome
4. Demonstration of network - The extent to which one can walk the fine balance between elegant referencing of collaboration with well-known figures in an industry and abject name-dropping, supporting one’s arguments with strong third party reference bolsters your argument and heightens your credibility by association with personal brands who already carry such credibility.
5. Long history of experience - Having years of experience is a huge increase in confidence because you have seen so many scenarios unfold, very little surprises you and you can field questions and give examples easily.
6. Comfort with conflict - Executive conversations often include conflict. Conflict arises when one party makes a claim that challenges the position of another. If the challenged party defends their position, what follows is a back and forth of contending statements, each that supports the view of the party or discredits the view of the other party. Being comfortable with direct conflict and handling it dispassionately is the mark of a seasoned, senior operator.
7. Gravitas - dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner. Very hard to develop before years of experience
These seven characteristics are a toolkit of executive presence super powers. When combined, impactful engagement with customer executives is not only possible, the scales are tipped in your favor.
But, some of the characteristics take years to develop and may feel unattainable right now.
So the question then becomes -
Which of these qualities do you have now, can you develop soon or outsource to others?
What you can improve your own skills now:
Of the seven, subject matter expertise and financial literacy are ones you can beef up quickly.
One use of subject matter expertise, or even a shortcut to it, is called the “Flash Roll,” detailed in Flip The Script by Oren Klaff. The Flash Roll is a 60-90 part of a presentation, pitch or conversation where the speaker makes a pillar point in their argument by briefly going deep on a technical topic. This both supports the point and establishes the speaker as a subject matter expert without staying in technical-speak so long, the executive audience gets lots and bored.
My friend Chris Schaum does a great course on financial literacy for sellers, details are here .
Where to leverage others now:
Business acumen and gravits will take time, so this is where leveraging your executives, advisors, board members comes in.
Lots of reps begin to visibly sweat when we discuss executive engagement. They feel that they need to lead and carry the conversations with the customer executives. This is, thankfully for most of us, not necessary most of the time.
It is absolutely okay to lean on your own executives to bring instant seniority to your calls or meetings. I did it all the time. I was in pharma R&D tech. I was never an operator in that industry.
I was typically the dumbest guy in the room.
So I had to leverage my own executives and subject matter experts to quickly earn credibility because I couldn’t hold an intelligent conversation from beginning to end on my own.
But between me, my execs and SME’s, we put on quite a show.
I would typically do the intro, grab attention quickly by calling out a big pain we knew the customer felt and discuss it in the customer’s business language.
If I brought an SME she/he would go to an appropriate level of operational depth to highlight the areas of complexity and the root cause of the issue.
My executive would offer color commentary and give uber-short examples of what we did with other customers and mentioned other customer executives (by role) with whom they had personally worked on projects such as the one under discussion at the moment.
Establishing an executive presence is a journey that you will take throughout your career. I’m still on it myself. There are components that you can address right now and others come with repeated exposure to executive audiences, practice and experience.
- Establish your sense of executive presence in the first call/meeting
- It is needed to engage and maintain access to customer executives.
- There are seven elements of executive presence.
- Some you can work on right away
- Others you will develop as a result of practice and experience.
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