Tips for Making Small Talk with the Big Boss (HBR)

One of the things that can befuddle managers, even experienced ones, is how to make small talk with the big boss.

When you are talking about someone who has authority over you, be it your boss’s boss or the CEO, the word “small” becomes relative. Anything involving a boss can have a big impact. Conversation with a superior can be fraught with peril but it can also be a great opportunity. Peril comes from the fear of saying the wrong thing; opportunity arises because you can reveal a new dimension of yourself to other.

You can increase the odds of success if you prepare. Yes, actually plan out what you will say to the senior manager. This works well if you know that the CEO is coming to visit your department or if you have the opportunity chat with him at an all-employee gathering. So here’s what you can do.

Do your homework. Learn the issues the senior team is focused on. Ideally everyone in the company should know the strategic priorities. Bone up on these so you know them, too. Think in advance what you will say to a senior person if you meet her in person. Work out a key message about your projects, your career and yourself. This is good practice whether you meet a senior person or not. Finally, if it’s a more social meeting, you might try to learn of a boss’s personal interests — hobbies, sports he or she likes, or their volunteer activities.

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First posted on on 3/22/2010