When you meet with a senior executive, there’s one factor that usually determines whether you get a follow up meeting: Have you added value for time? It the client benefits from your conversation, you’re on your way. If they didn’t find it particularly helpful, then next time they will delegate you to a subordinate or just ask for a written update.
Client Executives are Time-Starved
Right before the Covid-19 pandemic started, a client of mine told me about a consultant who kept emailing her to ask for “just 20 minutes” of his time. “Andrew,” he said at the time, “Yesterday alone I had about 10 people asking for a same-day meeting, and my calendar was already jam-packed.” Because of the ease of scheduling phone and video sessions during the pandemic, this problem has worsened.
It’s no secret that senior executives have more demands on their time than ever before. They are now bombarded with up to 400 or 500 email or text messages a day (including through services like Slack), spend many hours in meetings, and work longer hours than their predecessors did.
As a result, while mid-level managers seek value for money when it comes to hiring and interacting with external providers, senior executives are focused first on value for time. Sure, they also want value for money. But you will never successfully build an ongoing relationship with them if you don’t add substantial value for time in your meetings.
Many executives could fill their days twice over with people who want to meet with them. So why should they make time for you?
The Four Pillars of Value for Time
For client executives, there are four main sources of value for time: Insight, Perspective, Relevance, and Resilience. You need to draw on these intentionally for your executive meetings with both prospective and current clients.
After your meeting, you want your client to think, “That was a valuable conversation. It was time well spent. I’m looking forward to our next get-together.”
So, let’s look at each one of these pillars:
Insight. There are different types of insight that you can share with clients. First, there are external insights about markets, competition, customers, and trends. Second, if it is an existing client or if you otherwise know the organization, there are internal insights you can bring about challenges and opportunities the executive needs to confront. Thirdly—and this is a particular flavor of the previous category—there are specific insights you can share about people, relationships, and culture. Regardless of your expertise, if your work exposes you to the client’s organization, you may be able to offer ideas about improving teamwork and collaboration, reducing conflict, enhancing employees’ skills and capabilities, and so on.
Perspective. It’s extraordinarily valuable to help a client improve or change their perspective on their issues. In my interviews with clients about their most trusted advisors, this often comes up as a key trait they treasure. Can you help reframe a problem or give your client a big-picture perspective on their issues? They certainly don’t get this very often from their internal staff, or so they tell me. I once said to a client, who was focused on something that really wasn’t furthering their strategic agenda, “I’m wondering if perhaps the ladder you are climbing here is leaning against the wrong wall.” He laughed, and later came back to me and admitted he was not seeing the forest for the trees.
Synthesis is a key aspect of big-picture thinking. It’s the ability to see patterns–to connect disparate findings and possibly discover a new idea. A lot of the untapped value for executives lies at the intersections of different parts of their business—e.g., at the borders of operations, finance, HR, sales and marketing, etc. These opportunities are often missed, however, due to organizational silos.
Relevance. Value for time is also based on the relevance of your what you’re talking about. A good way to get instantly out of sync with your client is to push your agenda without taking the time to understand what they want to focus on. How often do you ask, simply, “What would you most like to focus on today?” To be relevant, you have to align your conversation to their agenda of critical priorities. Are you doing that?
Sometimes, it’s a question of dropping the planned agenda to focus on an immediate, urgent issue the client is facing. Don’t blithely talk about something that’s going to happen in three months when your client is facing a crisis they need to navigate right now, today. You might ask, “By the way, are there any immediate issues that have come up this week that you’re concerned about and working on?”
Resilience. An underappreciated way to add value with your client is to help increase their resilience as a leader. How do you do this? Sometimes, it’s a question of helping to increase their confidence. Even very senior executives have doubts, and they often have no one they can trust to discuss them. They need encouragement like the rest of us. Just saying, “I think you’re doing a great job under difficult circumstances” can be reassuring, and trust me, they probably are not hearing that from anyone else!
You can also improve their resilience by diplomatically challenging them: “I know you’ve set a goal for 5%, but I wonder if that’s aggressive enough considering what your competitors are doing?” I might also say something like, “I think your implementation plan is strong, but there are two aspects of it that your executive committee is going to criticize. Your case needs to be strengthened in those areas.” By challenging your client, you help them improve as a leader.
For your next client meeting, what’s your value-for-time strategy? How will you leave your client wanting more? Focus on Insight, Perspective, Relevance, and Resilience.