Companies & Industries

You Can't Buy Time


Business relationship expert Andrew Sobel discusses the value of executives' time and how you can persuade them to spend it on you

Andrew Sobel, author of Making Rain and Clients for Life, is a leading authority on developing resilient client and customer relationships. He works with many large professional services firms on how they can better connect with senior executives at other companies. I met with Andrew recently to talk about the growing importance of value for time in the executive suite. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:

Executives have always been pressed for time. What's changed?

Today executives have to deal with a variety of activist constituencies that include customers and shareholders, but also investigative journalists, nongovernmental organizations, enforcement agencies, boycott organizers, and others. They also have to manage and digest greater organizational complexity, new technologies, globalization, and the resultant avalanche of internal meetings, e-mail, and documents. Yet there are still only 24 hours in each day.

How does this affect relationships?

Recently, I was trying to organize a conference call between the chairman of a large professional services firm and another executive. I said to the chairman: "Let's just get a 20-minute call organized with William." It had been an exhausting week for him, and he said: "Andrew, you need to realize that I have about 50 people lined up here, and each one just wants 'just' 20 minutes with me!"

The point is that every senior executive I know could easily fill each day twice over. For every request, they are asking: "Can someone else handle this? Does this align with my most critical priorities?" They invest their time in relationships only where there is tangible value for them. Schmoozing is not dead, but there's much less appetite for it today. Value for time, for busy executives, is now far more important than value for money.

How would you define value for time, then?

Value for time could include both giving value and getting value in a fairly brief exchange. An executive is giving value when he or she is energizing an important initiative, making a key decision, shaping the direction of a program, meeting a key customer, or perhaps mentoring a direct report. That executive is feeling: "I really used the power of my office and my experience and judgment to have an impact here."

On the other hand, that person is getting value when learning valuable new information, being pushed to rethink a problem, getting his perspectives broadened, or making a new personal connection. Your message has to align with his or her goals and priorities. If they're not thinking: "That was a really great use of my time," you won't get a second chance.

Part of it is timing also. The CEO of a major bank told me: "When someone wants a meeting with me, their topic may not be high up on my agenda that week or month. But that may change. You have to be persistent and try to find out as much as possible about my priorities."

How would you advise someone who needs to plan time with a senior executive?

First you need to figure out what that person's most important issues are on that day. You might even ask at the outset: "What's the most important issue we should be discussing today?" You'd be surprised how that simple question can transform the discussion.

Then think about adding different layers of value in a conversation. First, there's what's called in pop music the hook—how you start the dialogue. Think of the guitar riff that introduces the Rolling Stones song Satisfaction. You're just commanded to listen. If you don't get the person's attention in the first few minutes, you've lost the opportunity. One IT company I know told me about a recent meeting they had with the CEO of a major telco. After 15 minutes he looked at his watch and left—there was no hook, they hadn't done their homework, and they failed to connect to his concerns.

This is consistent with my experiences of executives. What else can you do increase value for time?

Think about adding value in four categories: content or ideas, connection, personal help, and fun. The first category—ideas—is the most important: Are you bringing new information about what's happening in the executive's organization, or about what customers are saying? Are you making observations about the enterprise that are helping to shape his perceptions? Are you challenging an assumption? Connection can be another source of value: Can you expand his personal network? Personal help can embrace many things—advising someone's teenager about applying to your alma mater, getting them an appointment with a hard-to-reach medical specialist, or just being a sounding board about their next career move.

Some people still like to have fun—to go to the opera or a playoff game—but often they're just too busy, and usually this works best after you've delivered on the first three types of value.

What mistakes do people make?

They talk about themselves. They get mired in the details and take too long to get to the point. They act like a nervous supplicant. They try to sell rather than creating reach. They rely too heavily on props like PowerPoint slides. They focus on their own agenda rather than the other person's needs. They are inflexible and cannot easily shift the focus of the conversation.

Other than the 'nervous supplicant' one, I think that in the past 30 years I have made all of the other mistakes! Given how valuable executive time has become, isn't less really more?

Absolutely. Most people want more of an executive's time, but when you consider the dollar value of even one minute of a CEO's calendar, there is great value in getting results while using less of their time.

I completely agree with your philosophy. In almost every case the executive's time has far more economic value than the time of the consultant or coach. Like you, my goal is to help my clients achieve maximum positive change—while spending the minimum amount of time needed to achieve this change. This flies in the face of the old model of 'selling hours' for professional services.

Andrew, How can people contact you?

I would love to hear from your readers. They can contact me at Andrew@AndrewSobel.com.


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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