There comes a time in every employee’s life when he or she will come face-to-face with the CEO — and we’re talking alone. It could be in the elevator, in the break room, or in line for that midday Venti at Starbucks.
Wherever it happens, you only have a few seconds to decide whether to stare straight ahead and pretend not to notice him or her. Or, channel your inner conversationalist and actually engage.
We suggest the latter.
But for most of us, that’s easier said than done. Our palms start to sweat, our mouths suddenly run dry, and our minds go totally blank. It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to behave like a normal human being — or, at the very least, communicate with any sort of social etiquette.
If you find yourself in this situation, there are ways to keep from going silent. The following are often a good place to start:
1. Read the room. At larger organizations, it isn’t uncommon for employees not to know the CEO very well. If that’s the case, you’ll want to read her body language before sparking up a conversation. She may be late to a meeting, catching up on a few emails, or just not open to a conversation. In this situation, it may be best to smile, nod, and wait until another time for an introduction.
2. Keep it simple. If you’ve never met the CEO at your company, and if he seems open to a chat, do what you’d do when first meeting anyone else: introduce yourself. Say “Hi” and give your name. Then, share which department you’re in. Just be prepared to carry on the conversation should he ask a question or two.
3. Make it timely. One of the easiest ways to keep a conversation going with almost anyone is to reference an event or occasion that just happened. Let’s say you just celebrated the Fourth of July. You could ask, “How was your holiday?” If she says, “Good.” Consider the conversation done, and respond with something like, “Mine too.” If she expands upon her time off, you can then share a little about how you celebrated the holiday.
4. Talk a little shop. If you’ve been keeping up with company news, you can use a recent development to spark up a conversation. The same can be said for a new project you’ve been working on. After all, company business is one thing you’re guaranteed to have in common. Use it as an opportunity for him to get to know you — not to mention, show your knowledge about the organization.
5. Be complimentary. Most people love to hear good things about themselves and CEOs are no different. Be as tactful as possible when giving out compliments. If you recently caught one of her speeches, you may want to mention that you enjoyed what she had to say. And if you can come up with a question on a point made during the presentation, all the better.
6. Avoid taboos. Most grandmas will tell you to never talk about religion, politics, or money — and they’re right. Each one of these topics is a little too personal for work and can lead to conflicts. You’ll also want to steer clear of office gossip and complaints. It’s much better to compliment the work of a colleague in front of the CEO. In fact, your kind words could show you as a team player.
7. Mind the cues. Of course, not everyone will be in the mood to talk. If you’ve introduced yourselves, and he goes back to doing whatever he was doing, take a cue and wrap up the conversation — as brief as it was. Tell him that it was nice to finally meet him, and then go about your business. The last thing you want to do is to talk his ear off when he has pressing matters to attend to.
Regardless of the conversation length or topic, make sure to part ways on the right foot by saying something such as “nice to meet you.” If you’d like more information on how to best interact with your CEO, form relationships in the workplace, or other career advice we are here to help. To get started check out our career resources and blog.