How to get your CEO to trust you

Written by
Changeboard Team

15 Jun 2011

15 Jun 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Are you a trusted advisor to the CEO?

In my capacity as an Executive Coach, I meet behind closed doors with CEOs and Managing Directors and hear all about how they would like their senior team to behave with them. Here’s what they tell me in the privacy of coaching sessions:

The CEO is no fool. They know what's going on in the company. They see all the games being played. They also know the people who are trying to suck up to them.

The challenge the CEO has is to know who they can really trust when all of this is going on. There's an expression 'it's lonely at the top' and it's true. Often the CEO is party to sensitive information. They act as the buffer between the board, the banks and other key stakeholders and the senior management team. They carry a lot of stress on their shoulders and all the while need to continue to perform as an effective leader. Positioning yourself as a trusted adviser to the CEO can have numerous benefits. It's not just about furthering your own career. You can make your CEO's life easier, make your life easier and make you more effective in your own role.

Here are 5 key ways to get your CEO to trust you:

Brief them before meetings

Have you ever been in a situation where you only found out about something in a high profile meeting and had to admit you didn't know what was going on? Imagine how it would feel if you were the CEO and discovered a key piece of information had been withheld from you. Now imagine if the first you heard about it was when it was presented in front of other people.

Tip: Before every key meeting, grab a few minutes with the CEO to tell them about what you're going to present. Keep them informed about anything which would guide their decisions in a meeting. It's a myth that all important decisions are made in meetings. In many cases the meeting is held to ratify the decision which has already been made. If you have been excluded from the decision making process and hold an opposing view to everyone else, you will most like find your viewpoint being shot down in flames when other people close ranks on you.  It’s far better to give your CEO all the information they need before the meeting. Even if a decision has been made already, the information you share with your CEO might make them reconsider and they need time to get the support of the other people before they announce their new decision in the meeting. Hold back until the meeting and you risk publicly embarrassing your CEO and your peers. Not a good move.

Bring them solutions not problems

The role of the CEO is primarily as leader, rather than your line manager. Those who report directly to the CEO are expected to be able to take ownership of the situation and sort out their own problems.

Tip: When faced with a problem, talk it over with your own team first to brainstorm possible solutions. The GROW model from coaching can be really useful here:

  • Goal – what outcome are you looking for? What's the problem you're trying to sort out?
  • Reality – what's going on? Gather as much information as possible and find out what people have tried already.
  • Options – what could we do about it? Start with a blank sheet and no restrictions on possible solutions. The aim is to get all the options out there, regardless of how unusual they are. The cliché 'there's no such thing as a bad idea' does have merit because outlandish ideas can be the catalyst for other more workable solutions.
  • Way forward – which of the options will we go with? How? When? What resources do we need? Who do we need to tell?

When you've decided on the way forward, let the CEO know and tell them what brought you to this decision. Even if they disagree, they'll value knowing how you arrived at the decision you made.

Don't gossip but do keep them informed

Do you have a friend who is always dishing the dirt on the people you know? It might be fun to hear about all the latest scandals, but would you trust them if you had a problem or dilemma yourself? Of course not. You know it would just be the latest gossip hitting the circuit. It's the same with the CEO. If you're viewed as the office gossip or spreading rumours to get ahead, the CEO will not trust you with any information until it's out in the public domain. The same goes for your peers – you'll find they leave you out or only give you information when it serves them for it to be spread around the office.

Tip: The CEO still needs to know what's going on, but you must be sure that you're sharing facts with them and consider your motives for letting them know. If you want them to think badly of someone and there's no other motive, you're just spreading gossip. If you know for a fact that someone has done something which has the potential to damage the smooth running of the organisation or could reflect badly on the CEO, then it's time to have a discreet discussion flagging it up. Handle it tactfully and have evidence to back up your claim. Take care: the CEO may not thank you for bringing things to their attention if they wanted to be able to deny they knew about something later on.

Listen to them

We’re talking here about REALLY listening to them. There’s a difference between hearing what’s been said (and being able to repeat it back parrot-fashion) and active listening.  Active listening is when you’re fully engaged, you check you’ve understood and you ask questions which show you’re paying attention. You consider what you’re hearing and you’re thinking about it.

Tip: Brush up on your active listening skills. Have you attended a communication skills course or coaching skills course? Find your notes as these will come in very handy. Practice being present in the moment instead of running through your ‘to do’ list in your head while the other person is talking.

Keep your promises

There’s nothing that infuriates a CEO more than someone who agrees to everything and then fails to deliver. There are enough yes-men and yes-women out there already – the world doesn’t need more of them. Think about it from their perspective: they have to report back to other stakeholders and if you don’t keep your promises, they don’t either and that puts them in a very difficult position.

Tip: Be honest with your CEO. Don’t fall into the trap of committing to something without checking if you can actually get it done in time. If you have already promised something and you realise you’re going to struggle to keep your promise, give your CEO the heads-up early on.

Having a good relationship with your CEO can make your time at work so much less stressful. While we can’t promise your working day is always going to be plain sailing, working on these five areas will definitely improve the relationships you have at a senior level.