Last week, a mentee asked me a question.
“Geoff, a headhunter says I’m one of two [finalists for my first CEO job] with a decision to be made shortly. Any thoughts on how to close the deal, or let it close itself?”
His question sent a lightning bolt of excitement through me. How far he had come to be in a position to land his first CEO job!
This is not your stereotypical CEO candidate in the beginning.
When I met him, he was a high school junior attending a low-income/high-crime high school. It was the kind of school where kids had silver duct tape holding their winter coats together, if they had coats at all. I was there volunteer teaching a class on business finance. At his request for mentorship, my firm bought this aspirational leader a Wall Street Journal subscription, suggested he read it every day, and invited him to check in with us every 6 months if he wanted more career advice to become a successful business leader, which is what he said he wanted to do. That was 20 years ago. Fast forward through the hard work, the scholarship to a respected college, the long hours working for two investment banks and the successful stint as COO of a public company, and now he is about to land his first CEO job!
Should he actively close this job opportunity, or let this dream job close itself?
1) Reflect your understanding of their goals and wishes.
2) Tell them you are fully excited.
3) Tell them you look forward to working closely with them, to seek their counsel and to keep them fully apprised of what’s happening in the business and your intentions.”
Why reflect your understanding of their goals and wishes? It’s because hiring managers, and boards in this case, want to know that you are crystal clear about your mission impossible, should you choose to accept it. By stating your understanding of their specific goals—growing the value of the company by a certain percentage by a certain date, prioritizing specific products or customers or geographies that are performing well, fixing people problems or product problems or financial problems—you are signaling that you are on the same page with the board about what their goals are.
Boards don’t feel comfortable when they feel CEOs want to take a company in a direction that does not match their wishes. A few months ago, I recall talking with the CEO of a company who was fired because he wanted to grow the revenue more aggressively than the board wanted. What’s wrong with that? The board did not want to invest so much in R&D and preferred to enjoy larger profits now vs. having to delay gratification to some point in the future. Boards must trust that their CEO is focused on delivering the same results the board wants to achieve.
Why tell them you are fully excited? Sharing enthusiasm and unbridled excitement for the mission is not something your competitors are going to do. They will view it as a sign of vulnerability. They will play it cool. But they are wrong. It’s a sign of confidence when a finalist candidate declares his or her love for an opportunity.
Why tell them you look forward to working closely with them, to seek their counsel and to keep them fully apprised of what’s happening in the business and your intentions? Boards are generally terrified that a new CEO will leave them in the dark. Boards want to know two things—1) what is happening in the business, and 2) what the CEO plans to do about it to achieve the goals.
By getting out in front of that concern and telling your new bosses that you plan to be very communicative vs. secretive about what you are seeing and what you are planning to do, you will build trust before and after you are hired to your dream job.
Dr. Geoff Smart is Chairman & Founder of ghSMART, the leadership advisory firm. The firm exists to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world. Clients include CEOs, investors, and heads of state. ghSMART was ranked #1 on the 2019 Vault survey of “Best Consulting Firms to Work For” in the area of client interaction, and was named to the Forbes 2019 list of “America’s Best Management Consulting Firms.” ghSMART published three bestselling leadership books: Who, Power Score, and The CEO Next Door. Geoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.