What I Learned Working with an Infamous CEO


co-workerRe-syndicated from MENGonline.com

I worked for many years for a company with a long-reigning CEO that many thought impossible to work with.  Yet, I loved working there.  It may have been the best fit for my skills of any of the many companies I worked for.

I learned a great deal and used the following to prosper:

  • Shared background

The CEO and I each had been trained at Procter & Gamble, one of the CPG training institutions, and therefore shared the same language and even had the same thought processes ingrained.

For the rest of my career, I moved to different industries with bosses, including CEO’s, who didn’t understand the language I’d been using for 20 years.  I often had to work hard to think about how to communicate to these audiences:

    • Change the structure of my argument; and
    • Rewrite my presentations to eliminate even typical marketing jargon.

Lesson:  Look for common understanding based on previous experiences.  I don’t mean superficial bonding, but the better you understand your CEO’s approach, the more likely you can be effective.

  • Control the information

The CEO liked lots of data.  Lucky for me, he liked data that came through marketing.  I became the trusted funnel to generate and deliver the information directly.  Even though there were usually two to three layers of excellent people between the CEO and myself, I was the point person on my brand, especially if there was any discussion requiring specific information.

Lesson: Become the go-to-person for something important.

  • Master the information

If it’s important, it must be right.  If you establish yourself as the source, it only takes one error to undermine credibility.

Lesson:  Information is important and making it understandable and useful is power.  Messing up once can become the source of  a career ender.

  • Never bluff

This CEO had heard dozens of predecessors deliver opinions and information about virtually every subject that I dealt with.  Therefore, he had developed his personal “B.S. sonar” that was frighteningly accurate.

Lesson:  I’ll get back to you (fast) was a much better answer than guessing.

  • “We must all hang together, or surely, we will all hang separately!”

Benjamin Franklin’s famous quotation is a powerful way to communicate the value of team.  All of us worked well together. We had complimentary skills with a survival need.  Working together, we usually held our own when challenged by the CEO. Either the senior team member or the functional expert took the lead and the rest of our group rallied around to support.

Lesson:  Generate trust by determining the benefits that fall to individuals when working together…or at least make the dangers of separating obvious.

  • Retreat to fight another day

No one wins every battle.  In fact, there were many days when it was obvious that we were outgunned by the CEO, even when it was 5 against 1. Those days, we folded quickly before even getting into the pitch…before we could lose the argument.

Lesson:  Even battles that are critical and worth fighting usually don’t need to be fought immediately.  Don’t lose the war when the battle can be postponed.

I learned a great deal working with this CEO and our team.

I’d love to hear any lessons you have from dealing with your CEOs.

About Richard Sellers

Richard is Chairman Emeritus of the Marketing Executives Networking Group, founder of Demand Marketing consulting firm, and former Sr. VP of Marketing for three multi-billion dollar companies: CEC, WLP, and Service Merchandise. His early career was at GE, P&G, Playtex, and Marketing Corporation of America. He’s also a volunteer counselor for SCORE assisting small businesses in upstate New York. You can follow his communications about marketing, job search and careers here and at mengonlineENTREPRENEURS QUESTIONS, and on Twitter at @Sellers_Richard.



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