5 tips for talking to a CEO

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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 him 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.

In my case, I usually provide all the logic and reasoning up front and then ask — at the end — what I really want. It’s a mistake and I had to rearrange my conversation (in email as well…) to state what is being asked for up front. Make it clear and obvious what you want out of the conversation.

Once you ask for what you want, your CEO may not agree with you, but now you’ve put that person in a position to listen to what your reasons are for the request.

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?

You can also provide other options that were considered before making the recommendation and why those options were removed from consideration. The reasoning needs to be there, though.

Bullet points with each reason also force you to get organized given the minimal time most of us get when talking with a CEO or other executives.

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.

In the beginning of my career, I thought executives knew how things work. To a degree, they do. But unless you’re talking something strategic for the direction of your company, most executives don’t really know how things work. They sense the process issues, the inherent problems with a department, but they need people who really know how things work so a problem gets solved or an opportunity can be made.

You know how those work — or don’t. The company is paying you for your business judgement on how things work and that is something we tend to forget – I know I did.

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 me in the hall 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.

That being said, if you are presenting and there are legitimate differences in how something could be done, it’s worthwhile presenting the options and why people believe in the option.

If you’re leading the presentation and you’ve come to a conclusion, don’t bury the conclusion in all the other options discussed — start with the preferred position, the reasons, and then talk the other options and the reasons for rejecting them.

That way you keep your group together and include their final ideas in the discussion.

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 as a Cubicle Warrior, 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 talk with the CEO 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 and executives 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.

  • I think your last point is important, but it depends on the company. I used to work for both British Telecom and Marks and Spencer where a visit from  a senior manager let alone CEO was treated like a royal event.  I also used to work for Virgin Atlantic Airways and Richard Branson used to wander in and out of the office chatting to people like they were co-workers (which they were!)

    • Richard — good point. There is a difference between companies and cultures. Virgin’s culture is such that what you described does not surprise me. But I also thing that culture is all too rare. Royalty — or fear — is the emotion that is most often associated with visits from the CEO as you can see the emotions in your manager.

      When all about you are losing their heads and you can keep yours — it helps you keep it real and not go to awestruck and saying stupid stuff.

      Thanks for pointing this out to our readers.

  • Hey Scott. You say you walk in there to influence a decision. But the point is, how do you know you accomplished what you wanted? Showing off data and arguments is one thing. But how do you figure out the impact you had, that’s a whole different story. And I think if your objective is to influence, by the time you walk out you should have a clear idea of the level of influence you had. Stating arguments and data is not enough. It’s just the first step. How do you measure the impact of those data and arguments?  

    • Alex — a good point. I’m going to cop out and say it depends!

      The accomplishment comes from the business results you implemented as a result of the decision by the CEO. If you advocated for X project and the project was approved, you get no credit for influencing the CEO; you get credit for the results from the project that was approved.

      It’s not like you can put “Influenced 25 decisions with the CEO” on your resume. Getting approval to do something is not a result, it is the beginning.

      Specifically looking at the CEO piece, though, it is a relationship thing. Did you approach the CEO in a way that your voice was heard? Did you provide the information the CEO needed to make a decision? Did you answer objections from the CEO in a way that helped your point of view?

      So there is a distinction between what you did with the CEO and the success of that encounter compared to a “yes” decision and the results of the effort you did to make the business better.

      You want business results on the resume. But the way you may get them on the resume is how you influenced the CEO to do what you wanted to improve the business.

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