3 Strategies For Coaches To Break Into the C-Suite
Coaches and other professional service providers often want to gain clients at the highest management level within an organization. Earning this group’s business adds credentials to a coach’s portfolio and usually generates higher fees. Serving these clients often significantly expands the scope of referrals that one might expect to receive, as top-level managers may also be leaders within their industry or sit on other organizations’ boards. In this article, we will explore three strategies for coaches to break into the C-Suite, a term that refers to executive-level management within a company, such as CEO, CFO, and the like.
Breaking into the C-Suite Strategy #1: Offer Broader Experience To Add Value As with any customer segment, one of the best ways to develop clients within the C-Suite is by providing value specific to their situation. As CEO and Founder of iCareerSolutions Arno Markus explains, top executives tend to have broad responsibilities and benefit most from coaches whose skills are similarly broad: A coach can make services more attractive by ensuring that he or she has a wide range of experience. C-Suite executives are interested in people whom they think can help them when it comes to business. A more experienced coach, especially if in line with the client's industry, looks very appealing, making them more likely to want to acquire his or her services. Irial O'Farrel, a partner at Pebble Business Transformation, notes that not only are a C-Level executive’s needs often very broad but also that many of his or her specific areas of focus may be different from those of an “average” client: Many coaches and leadership development programs focus on the personal leadership side of leadership, but at the C-Suite level, it has also to include the organizational side of leadership. This means having an awareness of and being able to talk to the C-Suite's role in setting and delivering strategy, communicating that throughout the business, etc. Reading up on areas such as strategy, business models, value propositions, levels of organizational leadership, etc., will provide you with the broader perspective that resonates with C-Suite members. Another area in which the needs of C-Suite leaders differ is that their challenges tend to relate more around the allocation of their time and energy than they do to developing specific, tangible skills. Janice Burch, a leadership coach at Work Soul Flow, explains how coaches can tailor their service offerings accordingly: Understand that helping C-Suite executives is less about helping with a knowledge or skill gap and more about a support gap. Ask where a C-Suite executive can use more support? How can you help them make better use of their time and energy? Those are incredibly precious resources for leaders managing a lot of responsibilities. On the subject of time and energy, it’s worth noting that, while work-life balance and related issues can be important for many clients, these are often especially crucial for top managers and leaders. CEO of Business Success Factors Doug C. Brown advises that “when you connect with a C-Suite executive, one must understand the frustrations and challenges they have, and you as the seller, must sell to that. Behind every corporate agenda is a personal agenda, and you must sell to both sides in a manner that produces a safe ROI for the potential buyer at this level of success.” Indeed, some coaches are able to specialize in this aspect of “whole person” coaching for C-Level leaders. For example, leadership coach Edoardo Binda Zane advises fellow coaches to “touch a nerve: make it personal. I coach C-Suite level working dads. They’re more influenced by the values of their children than almost anyone else. Some want a more humanistic world in which women and men can reach senior positions without sacrificing home life. Not easy, but the message resonates esp. during our current crisis when what is truly important (family) is being re-imagined.” While many of the needs of top managers and executives are not radically different from those of many other coaching clients, the differences are there, and coaches who aim to target the C-Suite should calibrate their service offerings accordingly.
Breaking into the C-Suite Strategy #2: Create and Distribute C-Suite Friendly Content Coaches aiming to break into the C-Suite should not only target their service offerings (Strategy #1) and networking (Strategy #2) appropriately but also their marketing material. Founder of Supply Drop Danavir Sarria has found that “If you want C-Suite clients, you need to produce higher-level content such as case studies, research, and opinion-based content. Rather than trying to maximize traffic to your site, your goal is to maximize trust.” Cryptohead executive James Page emphasizes that top executives have limited time and even less tolerance for risk in choosing in coach (covered in Strategy #1 above) and notes the relevant implications for a coach’s marketing material: “Bluffing or faking anything will make them cringe, which is why you have to get directly to the point and explain why you are relevant for their end and why they should put you into consideration or invest in your services.”
Providing samples of one’s services is a useful marketing tactic when addressing any customer segment, and is even more valuable when it comes to the C-Suite executives with especially limited time and risk-tolerance. For example, business coach Jessica Dennehy has been successful with a strategy that she describes as follows: “listen more than I talk to understand their specific needs. Then, offer a solution to one of the issues they presented. Adding value for free and leaving them with some new pieces of knowledge is intriguing and leaves a lasting impression about what I bring to the table.” Creating relevant and targeted content is only part of marketing. Another big component is ensuring that it will be seen by one’s desired audience. In this respect, LinkedIn can be a very useful channel, especially while conference and other in-person events remain suspended, according to C-Level career coach Rosann Santos, who “optimizes LinkedIn, attracting clients both passively through her profile and actively through her interactions with her LinkedIn network.” Similarly, founder of Career Fixer David Wiacek often prospects for potential C-Level clients on LinkedIn, looking for commonalities or other hooks with which to start a conversation: If I see something that resonates (a legal education, past company, or even volunteering experience), I will reach out to say hello and will mention our common ground to break the ice; otherwise, a busy CXO would likely ignore me. Often, I see typos or other errors or sub-optimal elements on their LinkedIn profiles, and I point that out—free and immediate value right there. Most people are very grateful, and suddenly I’m on their radar. Underlying these approaches is the importance of being known to potential clients before they decide to hire a coach. Founder and CEO Get VoIP Reuben Yonatan observes that “when it comes to C-suite coaching, it’s often the executives who reach out to the coaches. However, they cannot do this if they do not know about you, see the value you offer, and cannot verify your effectiveness. Therefore, build connections and position yourself by doing work that will attract attention, such as having an online presence or offering free but actionable advice on social media.” As such, it is important for C-Suite coaches to carefully manage their online presence, discussed in the following Strategy #3.
Breaking into the C-Suite Strategy #3: Be Your Own PR Machine C-Suite executives will do their due diligence on potential coaches (or have their staff do it for them). As such, it’s important for coaches to manage their online presence carefully. This point is emphasized by Senior Career Advisor at MintResume Joe Wilson, who notes that “C-Level execs will do their research on you, so make sure you are portraying a professional image and displaying your achievements. They’ll be looking at reviews and testimonials. Show these, including your credentials. Don't be afraid to sell yourself as the experienced coach that you are.” Promoting oneself need not be restricted to online. Founder of Vine Education Russ Jaimes offers a unique and non-traditional sales and marketing strategy focused on the C-Suite: I first contact HR about any training needed for their organization. Then, I set up a 30-minute discussion with them and a candidate for coaching. I use that time to inquire about the executives. I pitch a typical program for their company that another coach in my company can teach that is more standard, but I announce during my assessment that I noticed something about a C-Suite Employee and then ask if I may make a suggestion that would be of help. This opens the door for a discussion or my sales pitch.
Conclusion Breaking into the C-Suite is not an easy or overnight task, but with patience and following the strategies above, a talented coach can get there. Focus on calibrating service offerings and marketing to the specific needs of C-Level executives, leveraging referrals, and proactively promoting yourself in ways that get the attention of top executives and their networks - and of course, in by delivering great client value in every engagement.