“You cannot be a leader and ask other people to follow you, unless you know how to follow, too” Sam Rayburn

You have set your strategy, devised the near-term actions, be clear about who you’ll contact and on what subject and then you’ll hear the dreaded words that will put all of that planning on pause for the next two weeks.  Those words?  “The CEO is in town and expects to meet prospects/customers.”  It seems to be a universal phenomenon, particularly at global organisations, that members of the C-suite will fly into a local office from HQ and their schedules will be managed, packing in a selection of internal town halls and external meetings with clients. 

I have had some very mixed experiences with these meetings.  Some, particularly where the CEO has engaged with the briefing process, have resulted in a step-up in the credibility of the relationship between organisations.  On other occasions I have left the meeting feeling that the relationship took a noticeable step backwards.  Given this experience, I was interested to read a piece in the latest Harvard Business Review entitled: “How leaders can drive sales.”[i]  I was amused to learn that some wit has given the worst of these executives a name – ‘seagulls’ – on the basis that they “fly in, make a lot of noise, leave a mess and fly off…”

I have spent most of my employed life dealing with investment consultants, who advise asset owners.  Investment consultants are significantly influential in the buying process of investment strategies by institutional clients, filling the knowledge gap of their clients and recommending which investment managers to hire.  Given their influence, the c-suite are always keen to meet investment consultants, particularly those in senior positions such as heads of research.  If you consider the many thousands of investment management firms all seeking to meet a small number of key investment consultants, you can imagine the high bar these individuals will set before they accept a meeting.  So given the rare opportunity to engage with these people, it makes it even more important that the messaging is right.  The research carried out in the HBR is particularly illustrative of the potential pitfalls of these meetings and how important it is to have a strategy around them and a listening executive.

The authors identify five categories of executive:  the ‘hands off’, the ‘social visitor’, the ‘loose cannon’, the ‘dealmaker’ and the ‘growth champion’.  They then map these styles of leader to the sales and profitability of the firms they lead – looking at five-year CAGR for sales and profitability.  The firms with hands off executive fared worse in terms of profitability growth.  This executive is characterised as someone who does not engage at all with customers, leaving it instead to the sales team.  Given the reference to seagulls earlier, this type may have some appeal but there are times in the sales cycle when senior involvement is advantageous, even key to securing the business. 

The ‘loose cannon’ (this is the group that seagulls applies to) reflects the executive who may approach the prospect direct, without informing the relationship manager or who goes into a meeting unprepared or unbriefed.  The results can be disastrous.  ‘Social visitors’ recognise their role in the process and seek to support and offer commitment to the relationship, whilst leaving the detail to the relationship manager.  The ‘dealmaker’ really gets behind the sales process and can provide assurance in closing the transaction that the prospect firm will be well looked after.  Finally, the ‘growth champion’ engenders a partnership relationship between his firm and clients, focusing on alignment of strategy between the two. 

The difference in profitability growth between the best (growth champion) and worst categories is stark: -0.3% versus 9.7%.  The article concludes with a powerful message: ‘becoming more customer-centric is not just another project for top executives to put on the to-do list; it is an essential part of growth and a fundamental driver of success.’

[i] Harvard Business Review, March – April 2021, Noel Capon, R.C. Knopf Professor of International Marketing at Columbia Business School and Christoph Senn, adjunct professor of marketing a codirector of the Marketing and Sales Excellence Initiative INSEAD.

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