Can You Go Directly to the Senior Client Without Stepping on Toes?

Whenever I give advice, it’s always helpful if I’ve personally experienced the problem. So let me tell you a story about what happened to me.

Who’s in Charge?

I was recently asked to coach a high-ranking executive at a major financial services firm who was scheduled to speak Walking on Eggshells on a panel at a prestigious industry conference. On the day I flew in to work with Joan, I learned that neither the PR Department nor the speaker had received any information from the conference organizers.

Needless to say, this was not great timing for a coaching session and led to a lot of unnecessary tension. Because Joan was so senior, a “team” of assistants felt they had to get involved with the briefing and arrangements. Too many people were giving directions and no one was in charge.

This was Joan’s first foray as a speaker in the major leagues. She had no idea how coveted her invitation to speak at this conference was. No one wanted to point out how she could improve or provide the guidance she really needed. That was my job.

When I arrived, I learned that Joan had cut our scheduled time to 90 minutes – not nearly enough time for us to work together to create her messages, polish her presentation skills and to offer suggestions for how she should dress to project a professional image.

After the first session, I called the head of marketing to discuss what needed to be done to prepare Joan for her participation on the panel and to insure that she and the institution had a big win. We quickly agreed on a plan of action and scheduled another appointment for me to meet with Joan a week later. By that time, we knew the questions for the panelists and had a productive session.

Don’t Get Trapped

I take some of the blame for not insisting on a call with Joan before our initial meeting. Had we spoken, she would have been better prepared about Trapped Person Tangled in Red Tape No Freedom what to expect during our coaching session and would have understood how important this speaking engagement was for her and the company. It was a lesson learned.

Another lesson is to not allow yourself to get trapped by having to take direction from too many people. That adds to the confusion and provides unnecessary tension. Go to the source that has all the correct information.

Won’t that be stepping on other people’s toes at the client organization? Possibly.

But it shouldn’t if you’ve established good relationships with clients at all levels in the company – including the people causing the confusion. They mean well. They just may not have all the facts.

You need to feel confident in your point of view and take action if there are obstacles keeping you from doing your job. Just imagine the consequences if I hadn’t gone to the senior client to ensure that the speaker and I had sufficient time to practice and rehearse.

Joan would have gone to the conference unprepared with her key messages. She would not have projected an image of the confident and knowledgeable leader that she truly is.

Doing The Right Thing

I’m not saying it’s easy to bypass people in the middle. First, it’s important to have established a good working relationship with the top person. I felt comfortable reaching out to the head of marketing, as I knew she would appreciate the delicacy of the situation.

When you feel you must go the senior person, consider:

  • Do you have a legitimate reason for bypassing intermediaries? Have you tried to make it work with the people who report to her?
  • Can you work around the obstacles and get the information you need from other sources?
  • Are you prepared for the consequences? You may need these people in the future and they may remember this slight.
  • Have you prepared your response to negative blowback from the people you bypass? How will you handle it?
  • Can you involve the intermediaries in the process, by including the most important person between you and the senior client? Schedule a three-way conference call so no one feels left out of the process. You can smooth the way by saying something like, “Susan, I know John quite well. We’ve worked on these kinds of projects before and I have a feel for what he wants. I’m going to give him a call. Do you want to be included?” Chances are very good the answer will be “yes.”

Before the meeting, prepare the course of action you want to take and why it will benefit the speaker, the senior client and the company.

Will some people you bypass hold a grudge? Will you still get business from that client? In life you need to take thoughtful risks. By that I mean you need to carefully weigh the consequences of your actions and accept the outcomes.

In this particular case, the downside of not calling the senior client outweighed the positive benefits. Ironically, the risk was greater by not doing something. The speaker might have bombed at the conference. Guess who would have gotten the blame?

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