The entrepreneur whisperer: Tips on engaging growth-company CEOs

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Trusted adviser-smallSuccessful growth companies often think they don’t need help. And that can make it tough when entrepreneur support organizations try to engage them in new programs. In the past, I used to offer what I considered sage advice. “Become a trusted source. Once they know you add value, you’ll have no issues getting them involved.”

Recently, “Little Miss Know It All” (that would be me) was seriously humbled. We had invited nearly 40 second-stage CEOs who had participated in one or more of our programs to the foundation for a discussion group.  We were baffled when only seven accepted. That’s when I realized it’s sometimes not enough to simply offer a program. We have to engage personally with these CEOs or find someone they trust to do it for us.

I refer to my colleague Steve Quello (president of CEO Nexus), as the Entrepreneur Whisperer.  He can get CEOs to do anything. Show up at roundtables, sign up for Economic Gardening and attend CEO forums. For all I know he has them brushing his cats. (I don’t even know if he has cats, but if he did, I bet these CEOs would brush them.) He makes it look easy. It isn’t. He’s in their faces a lot. He calls them, reminds them about events, facilitates their roundtables, and asks them what they need. He listens and never gives advice unless he’s asked. They trust him. I think they kinda’ love him.

So after the aforementioned humbling, here’s what I think:

  1. Develop a personal relationship with five CEOs before you consider starting a new program.
  2. Research the company before you get in touch. They’ll respect that you cared enough to get more information on your own.
  3. Get close. I don’t mean, “Will you give me a kidney tomorrow?” kind of close, but pay attention.
  4. Meet them on their terms, even if it’s a beer after work (especially if it’s a beer after work).
  5. Refrain from talking about your organization and your issues, unless they ask. And even then, keep it short.
  6. Just really listen. (This bears repeating.)
  7. Find out what keeps them up at night.
  8. Start thinking about how you can make a difference.

If you don’t know where to find your CEOs, start with your service providers (attorneys, bankers, accountants). They drink beer too. Then listen to what they hear from their clients.  Ask for an introduction. Once you have the individual CEO relationships, get them together as a group and start talking about what service you’re considering. See if they find it valuable or how they might tweak it. Then move. Talk without action is a huge turnoff for this audience, so make sure your roadblocks are out of the way.

After a while, they’ll trust you. I bet they’ll even kinda’ love you.

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Penny Lewandowski
Senior consultant on external relations
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A thought leader in entrepreneurship and building an entrepreneurial culture, Penny Lewandowski is senior consultant of external relations at the Edward Lowe Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on new ways to think about economic development – especially how a grow-from-within strategy leads to thriving and sustainable economies.