It seems that every conference I ever went to on intelligence, foresight or research had a track about “how to get executive buy-in” or “how to get a seat at the table” or “winning over the C-suite.” Today, I saw an article on this topic for the 95,000th time, and it occurred to me to finally crystalize my point of view on this.
If we are going to generalize about executives as if they are all interchangeable – and lord knows, that is most of business literature – then there are only two ways to win the confidence of top executives:
1. Do a very good job for many people in the organization over a long period of time, such that your work is perceived to be trustworthy by people up and down the hierarchy.
2. Tell the executives what they already believe.
You can’t teach the first point, and nobody really wants to discuss the psychology behind the second point.
Building your brand is a matter of competence and a matter of politics. First, you must be able to do your job as a researcher and analyst competently. This is within your power. However, making this politically popular is not up to you. It really depends on the culture and climate of your organization, and whether people really like somebody running around, analyzing the world well and delivering insightful implications about what it means for top management. And if you are not in an organization that likes that sort of thing, then forget about brand building, get a new job. You can do an exceptional job at an organization full of stupid political hacks – I have experience in this matter – and you still are not going to “win the C-suite.” You’re going to end up with your desk next to the boiler in the basement, or out in the parking lot.
The other way to reliably win access to C-Suite is to be a consummate butt kisser and consistently bend your analysis in whatever direction the prevailing political winds are blowing. The best way to assure “executive buy-in” is to show up with information that supports past decisions and existing biases. To be sure, you’ll need the veneer of data to support your findings – we’re all professionals, of course – and if that data flatters top executives rather than challenges them, you can plan on return visits to the comfy chairs in the room with the really nice table.
Here’s why intelligence is constantly begging for approval
A follow-up question to ask is “why are we constantly pleading for top executives to take intelligence seriously?” As I mentioned, I have seen this conference track at close to a million conferences for over a billion years, and never is it asked, “Jeez, why are people in the information field constantly begging for acceptance?” You would think that in these modern organizations full of managers with master’s degrees, the thirst for scientific evidence behind decisions would be unquenchable. But here we are, every year, professionals talking amongst themselves about how to get those elusive “c-suite executives” to finally take intelligence seriously.
The reality of the situation is that most managers see intelligence as a way to justify a decision that is already made, not to learn something new. At the end of the day, intelligence serves decision makers – and the people involved in intelligence are rarely at a peer level in the organization. This means that from the word go, intelligence professionals are in a subservient position, and are often judged for how their work output makes people look and feel. When they make people look or feel bad – which fresh information about the outside world often can – intelligence professionals take a beating in terms of reputation.
It’s not fair. It’s not pretty. Then again, isn’t the intelligence field supposed to be about reality as opposed to comfortable assumptions? Good. Then we can all accept this point and stop writing about the magic formula to be loved by top executives. The truth is simple and a bit ugly.
Hey, if you cared enough to reach the bottom this post, then check out the book I wrote all about this topic of perennial challenges in the world of intelligence.