Tips for Making Small Talk With Bigwigs

One of the things that can befuddle managers, even experienced ones, is how to make small talk with the big boss.

When you are talking about someone who has authority over you, be it your boss’s boss or the CEO, the word “small” becomes relative. Anything involving a boss can have a big impact. Conversation with a superior can be fraught with peril but it can also be a great opportunity. Peril comes from the fear of saying the wrong thing; opportunity arises because you can reveal a new dimension of yourself to other.

You can increase the odds of success if you prepare. Yes, actually plan out what you will say to the senior manager. This works well if you know that the CEO is coming to visit your department or if you have the opportunity chat with him at an all-employee gathering. So here’s what you can do.

Do your homework. Learn the issues the senior team is focused on. Ideally everyone in the company should know the strategic priorities. Bone up on these so you know them, too. Think in advance what you will say to a senior person if you meet her in person. Work out a key message about your projects, your career and yourself. This is good practice whether you meet a senior person or not. Finally, if it’s a more social meeting, you might try to learn of a boss’s personal interests — hobbies, sports he or she likes, or their volunteer activities.

Be yourself. When you are introduced to the senior leader, make eye contact as you shake hands. Smile and act relaxed. Feel free to ask questions about what’s going on in the company. If appropriate, talk about what you are working on. This is your opportunity to use your messages. Strive to be brief and to the point.

Read the situation. Keep speaking if the boss is interested; if not, thank the person for his time and move on, even when you didn’t get the opportunity to use your key messages. In some ways your sense of decorum is more important than what you say. Rattling on when no one is interested marks you as lacking in self-awareness; knowing when to end the conversation says much about your ability to read the situation.

Such preparation is good when you know in advance you may meet a senior executive or a member of the board, but what about accidental encounters, say at the airport, a social gathering, or even a sporting event? The good news is that what works for prepared encounters works for impromptu ones. Just assume that someday soon you will run into a senior person and prepare for it as you would for a more predictable encounter. And that preparation will pay off in other contexts too, such as during team meetings or conversations with clients.

That’s why you should practice your key messages from time to time, say on your drive to work. You can even practice by recording them on your mobile phone, just to see how you sound. The exercise will give you confidence that you have what it takes to have a clear and coherent conversation with people in power.

One of my favorite stories about Winston Churchill, taken from Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, is an encounter he had with a young New Zealand airman during the Second World War. The airman had crawled out of the cockpit of a bomber with an engine on fire and extinguished the flames. When Churchill met the young man he noted the lad’s nervousness. “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence,” Churchill said. When the man said he was, Churchill replied, “Then you can imagine how awkward and humble I feel in yours.”

Never forget that senior leaders are people first; executives second. Never forget your own personal abilities. And never forget that making small talk can have a big impact on your career.


4 thoughts on “Tips for Making Small Talk With Bigwigs

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