5 tips for talking to a CEO

By Scot Herrick | Job Skills

Aug 02

There are lots of articles about how to talk to people in higher levels of management. Most of them start with the wrong premise. For example, many writers consider an opportunity to speak to upper management more on the level of meeting royalty. One article put it this way: “If you are granted an audience.” Yeah, an audience… And given income levels, perhaps that isn’t so far off the mark.

But consider this: I was talking about vacations with a friend who goes “up north” to the lake every year. Every year, a big-time CEO comes for the weekend. He comes in his private plane, goes to his home on the lake, hires the same fishing guide and then spends two days fishing on the lake. At the end of the two days, gets back on his private plane and goes back to work.

I’m thinking all that is pretty extravagant — seriously, fly in on private plane to a house barely used, spend two days and fly back? My friend counseled me this way: it’s not about the money, nor the extravagance. Instead, it’s the only time the CEO gets to spend talking about every day stuff — how the fish are biting, how the kids are doing in school, how the relationship is with the wife (in this case). The only time, as the rest of the time is all about figuring out who is trying to impress you versus who and what the agenda is all about. The guide, you see, doesn’t care if you are a CEO. The fishing guide wants to make sure you catch some fish and enjoy your time.

Much can be learned from that simple story. Here’s how to talk to a CEO — for real.

1. State your conclusion or request for a decision up front.

CEO’s and other managers are in meeting after meeting after meeting. They have limited time (although, with their position, they actually have unlimited time to work something). And since everyone has an agenda, the first thing higher level managers try to figure out is what you really want. So tell them. Within the first paragraph of talking to them.

Once you tell them what you are asking them to do (“looking for approval to spend $100,000 on improving our system to increase inventory turn…”), the CEO will then understand where you are going and will listen to your logic on how you got to the request. Rather than spending your limited time trying to figure out what you want until the end and missing all the data points in between.

CEO’s and other high managers are paid to make decisions. Tell them the decision you want them to make.

2. Use results to support your case

Opinions are a dime a dozen (including this one!). Better to support your argument with actual results, real numbers and rigor in the analysis. You don’t need to explain how you did the study — but what the study found as a result (“we found that ten products contributed more than eighty percent of the slow inventory turn…”). If the CEO wants details on how the study was conducted, he or she will ask. You don’t think you got the “audience” with the CEO without getting vetted, do you?

3. Give your opinion if asked

Data is great as far as it goes. But your business judgment counts for something — that’s why you do the job you do. You understand how things work at your end. No set of data is complete — far from it. The skill of a CEO comes from making decisions with incomplete data and conflicting facts. Opinions, in the end, count. While you want facts to show your position, your facts inform your opinion.

And don’t be wishy-washy in your opinion. If asked, give it, and if not everyone agrees with you, say so.

4. If you advocate a position, know where the group stands on the position

I have no love for people who say one thing to you and then say something different because of the way the political winds blow in a meeting. If you know the position and that blowing in the wind starts to happen, you can politely call them on it by talking about your conversation with them. Bloody their brown nose in a polite way.

5. Don’t expect an answer or direct response to your request

Since everyone has an agenda, everyone is looking for the slightest sign of anything from the CEO about the meeting (which is why the CEO needs to go fishing on a weekend to get back to reality). You asked for what you wanted, you made your case, you showed the work you did. That’s what you went in to do. You don’t directly report to the CEO, so the CEO won’t say much to you directly because the CEO needs to work through your manager.

Since you don’t report to the CEO, your CEO will speak with your manager — or your manager’s manager — about what was said and decide from there. You go in to influence a decision; that’s the accomplishment.

CEO’s are people

This is obvious, so people should get off the notion that a meeting with the CEO is some sort of “audience” with royalty. Yeah, some CEO’s are, unfortunately, assholes with power issues. No one can help you with that situation.

But if you have a meeting with senior managers, it is important to remember they are people — they have families, they have hobbies, they have social activities they do and they take part in the areas outside of work that interest them.

And you have something valuable to contribute: your business judgment on how something should be done because of the work you do. The CEO doesn’t have that perspective: you do. That means you can offer value to the conversation if you present your information in a way that helps solve problems. Because that’s what you do as a Cubicle Warrior.


About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.