The call came in the forenoon of an otherwise ordinary Tuesday seven years ago. I was engrossed in a particularly explosive mail from top Management. The mail laid out the details of an impending exercise aimed at repositioning the conglomerate for improved performance.
I ignored the first and second ring. As a matter of fact I barely heard the first ring. On the third ring however I scooped up the phone and muttered the usual “hello”.
“Mr. Frank”? The voice asked, to which I answered in the affirmative. “This is………. speaking”.
I practically jumped out of my seat. I couldn’t believe my ears. There must be a mistake. What on earth would make my Group Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer call me? And he did not just call me, he did so directly, by-passing my immediate boss, the General Manager (Human Resources). My heartbeat razed to an all-time high. God, what have I done!?
The man politely asked me to see him at 12 noon on Thursday of that week. He even followed it up with a polite question if that was okay by me. My God, did I have a choice!?
My employer at that time was a conglomerate of 18 subsidiaries owned and managed by two highly shrewd Indian brothers, with about 2,800 employees all together. I was just a lowly-placed manager having joined the company the previous year. It was a fairly large corporation with opportunities for growth and development. My direct boss was returning to his home country but he was not due to leave for another two months. So why would the boss of my boss himself by-pass him and call me directly? I was soon to find out.
After the call from the GMD I went straight into my direct boss’s office and there and then the look on his face gave me my answer. He knew about the call from the GMD. His smile said it all.
“Congrats” he said.
“For what sir”? I asked.
“Come off it Frank, how often do CEOs call their employees?” I had no answer to that. He continued, “sit down Frank. Now listen and listen good, you know I would be leaving soon. So I told the GMD he does not need to get someone else to take my chair. I told him you are good to do my job…..” To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. It took me a while to recover. Then the lecture started.
“You see Frank, most employees never ever have the opportunity to meet with the CEO of the company they work for. So if you do, it is important that you do not blow it, for it might be the only chance you will ever have. Such opportunities may also present a double-edged sword scenario. You may leave the CEO with a positive impression or a negative one. Either way, you stand a chance to gain or lose. As you may know, many CEOs and senior executives have short attention spans but long memories. So listen carefully and learn how you could make a good impression on the GMD and justify why I tipped you to take over my job. I have already prepared my tips in a mail format. I would send the mail shortly, but for now just listen. Follow these tips, and you will not only survive the meeting with GMD but you will also thrive on the job.
- STUDY THE MAN
Prepare like you would for a job interview. Learn everything you can about the GMD ahead of your meeting. Read the information provided on the company’s website. Google him and his brother, read and memorize the stories about him, including recent news, in order to get an external perspective. Look for and read their recent public speeches. Talk to others who know him and have had meetings with him before, and that is actually what I am doing with you now. You may not use any or all of this information, but it will make you feel more prepared and comfortable. And who knows, there may be an opportunity to make a personal connection or informed comment, or at least prevent you from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time
- ARRIVING AT THE EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT’S OFFICE
Most executive assistants are very powerful, perhaps more powerful than their CEO. They are like the Praetorian Guard. So, impressing the GMD must necessarily start with impressing his executive assistant, although you don’t have to be too condescending. The executive assistant can be your best friend or worst nightmare, so approach her with the utmost respect. Be amiable, but do not make the mistake of getting too casual. Explain your reason for the meeting, if you are asked to wait, wait patiently. Exchange minimal talk with her. Don’t go on and on chatting, and don’t feel too important even if you are superior in position. Do not be surprised if your meeting has to be rescheduled.
Do not make the mistake of appearing before the GMD in just shirt and tie. Wear a suit. Most CEOs like their managers to look professional, even though some, like our own GMD, hardly wear suit themselves. So dress decently, if in doubt, better to play safe, overdress. Watch your posture, speak clearly and confidently, and greet him with a smile and firm handshake. He likes people who exude self-confidence.
Remember, he cannot possibly be an expert in every aspect of the company. It is your job to be his expert in your area of the company. If you are not, you have no reason to be meeting with him. So prove to him that you are worth the position you are occupying. Be damned good and don’t disappoint me. I don’t want to have to answer the question why I recommended you. I want him to see it himself, and it lies in you to prove it. But, be careful not to overdo things, he is not stupid after-all. If he is, he won’t be running a large company like this. If he had told you in advance what the meeting would be about, then it would have been advisable you go with a one-page summary. But since he did not, then be prepared for the worst. I recommend you digest the mail you have just received and have some questions based on it. Take relevant reports and supporting documents with you, in case you need them to respond to a question. He likes someone who is always prepared.
- DON’T WASTE HIS TIME
When asked a question, make sure you understand the question before you answer it. Then, answer it directly and succinctly. If you do not know, do not attempt to bluff your way through it. Just say “good question, sir. Unfortunately for me, I do not have the answer, but I would be glad to get the answer and get back to you sir”. If challenged, and you disagree, do not automatically back down and agree. Remember, you are the expert. If you back down too readily, you will lose authenticity. However, do not be stubborn – know when to back off. Take notes, but do not write down every word like a court clerk. Also make sure you understand the nature of the question. For instance, if he asks you a pointed question, go straight to the point. Do not attempt to give him the background information first. You won’t impress him that way. Remember, before he asks you a direct question, he already has the background info. However, if he asks you to “tell me about so, so and so….” it means he is not sure and wants you to given him as much background info as he needs to make an informed decision, or that he wants to match what you would tell him against what he already knows. Be careful though, state the facts, be brief but as informative as possible.
- IRRELEVANT TALKS
This can come at any time – before or after the main issues have been discussed. If you have done your homework well, you will know if it is better to start with small talk. The GMD is a cricket fan, so you might consider researching his favourite team and make a positive comment about them during small talks (I have actually done this myself). Or you may get right to the point. However, do not assume – let him set the tone. Be prepared to answer questions about your background, family, role, interests, aspirations etc…Big men are normal everyday people too – it might even be a welcome relief to them spending time with a “regular” employee for a change. Depending on his/her style and mood, this could eat up most of your time if you are not careful. Some crafty CEOs like to introduce irrelevant discussion simply to waste your time and watch how you would handle the situation. Be patient, but after 5-10 minutes, make a tactful transition to the meeting topic.