Getting Buy-in Requires Executive Empathy

And why your SEO strategy should “agree with” the product strategy

Sorry for the slow down in emails - I’ve been heads down producing and managing the SEO MBA beta cohort course. Turns out preparing course materials is a ton of work, respect to all the teachers out there! I know a ton of folks wanted to get into the beta cohort and didn’t get in so please hang tight… There will be more very soon.

Putting together a strategy requires empathy. Executive presence is the art of seeing the problem from someone else’s point of view.

Dealing with executives requires a level of empathy - what do they know about SEO? How much do they know about your plans? They likely have a stacked roadmap already, why should they care about additional work?

You have to put yourself in their shoes to be able to understand how to get buy-in and support for your work.

The SEO Strategy Should Agree With the Company’s Strategy

Most companies don’t actually have an SEO strategy that’s maintained and reviewed at the c-suite. Instead, SEO is typically a part of the product strategy and the marketing strategy. Not this:

But rather something like this:

So if we want to get product buy-in and resources or marketing buy-in and resources we need to align our strategy with their strategy. Our strategy needs to agree with theirs.

Not in the sense that we have to agree with every single choice (“no, don’t launch that javascript solution!”, “no, don’t put all that content behind a login!”) - but that at a high level we need to ensure that we’re working towards and supporting the strategy and goals of the product or marketing orgs.

This requires knowing something about their strategy!

  • Can you articulate the product strategy for your company or client?

  • Do you know what this quarter’s goals are for the marketing team?

  • Are you presenting your projects in a way that aligns with their strategy and goals?

Now, understanding a company’s strategy is sometimes not obvious - many companies either don’t maintain a clearly articulated strategy, or if they do it’s only loosely related to the *actual* strategy the company is following.

Giff Constable has a great article on winning strategic roles where he discusses the danger in over-reaching to try and define a company strategy (bolding mine):

Quite often, companies have clear business goals but an unclear strategy, which makes doing the above a bit trickier. This was exactly the case when I joined my last two companies as head of product, and it’s the situation both CPOs Georgie Smallwood and Oji Udezue separately described walking into as they joined new companies (you can hear their stories on Melissa Perri’s podcast Product Thinking). So yeah, sub-optimal but not uncommon…

It’s natural for a head of product to tackle this, but you don’t have to wait to be that senior to dig in and help. Leaders don’t wait until they have the title to lead. However, the more junior you are, the more you have to approach this with humility and political savvy, otherwise it can smack of hubris.

Again, let’s return to our causal chain. As a PM on a team, you need a team-level roadmap and clear team-level goals. For this, you need a company-level roadmap and product strategy. For this, you need a clear company strategy as well as company-level goals.

Your attitude should be: “I need to clarify our strategy so my team can make better decisions,” and not: “I should help set the company strategy.” The former gets a “how can I help?” reaction from others. The latter gets a “who do you think you are?” reaction.

This dance between “let me define the strategy” and “can you clarify the strategy for me?” is a difficult one but it’s worth paying careful attention to how other teams frame and pitch their work and how the executives talk in the organization. Language matters.

In my own work I often end up becoming something of a chameleon - I try and mimic the language of the executives I’m working with. It helps me repeat and repeat the focus of the company again and again and to ensure that I’m talking about my work in a way that they care about. This gives me the best chance to ensure I’m aligning my strategy with the overall company strategy.

Dealing with CEOs

In particular, dealing with CEOs can be draining, mostly because the CEO’s job is to say no. Venkatesh Rao talks about this in his long and opinionated piece CEOs don’t steer. The point he makes is that a CEOs job is to set the direction and then do everything possible to drive towards the promised land, which mostly means saying no, shutting things down and maintaining focus:

The primary CEO function, and the trait the good ones are selected for, is to provide the gyroscopic stability required to keep a company vectored in the chosen direction. They end up in the jobs they do because they counterbalance an organization’s natural tendency towards distraction, ADD and momentum dissipation. A typical company is a wandering, wobbling hive mind, liable to spend all its time chasing distractions if you let it, before dissolving into a bunch of clever tweets about crappy prototypes.

So it’s very common when presenting to a CEO to simply get ignored, sidelined or marginalized. And this can feel like no fun at all…..

When CEOs are doing this job well, they look like out-of-control assholes.

They derp. They preach. They steamroller over people. They are painfully blunt and black-and-white in their responses to things people say. They make no effort to soften the blows they routinely deliver. They reduce people to tears. They appear to listen, but then they just do their own thing. When they exercise power, they make sure you know it.

Two reasons SEO in particular can get sidelined:

  1. The activities presented (sitemaps, audits, technical maintenance) are typically not a coherent strategy. There’s no logic to them, which makes it hard for a CEO to confidently say “yes this SEO work aligns with our chosen direction”. So instead of recommending a bunch of tactics, try creating a narrative that aligns with what the CEO cares about. This sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how often this is overlooked.

  2. Organic traffic is often presented as a monolithic stable thing that goes up or down. I suspect many CEOs have a secret (sometimes not so secret!) suspicion that if they put their SEO investment to zero not that much would change. Many SEOs don’t bother to first justify the value of the SEO team (note this is NOT the same as justifying the value of organic traffic). This can be as simple as keeping a log of explicit “we did X and saw $Y” that shows explicit value for the SEO investment.

So next time you’re frustrated that you can’t get buy-in or resources, take a step back and try to look at the problem from their perspective. How might we align our strategy with the overall company strategy to grease the executive decision making wheels…

And remember - you’ll have an easier time if you’re contributing to the laser focused direction the company is going in, not contributing to what Venkatesh calls the “wandering, wobbling hive mind, liable to spend all its time chasing distractions”.

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