Engaging The CEO (PART 2): 10 rules To Decode The CEO


No matter how senior our role, we all need to sell to our boss or board and it starts at the job interview. Later we need approvals for various initiatives or projects we want funded. We also have agendas we want advanced, promotions we seek, and conflicts to resolve. Every organization is political in nature and competing agendas abound – this complexity creates a minefield that must be navigated to then engage with the person of ultimate power… the CEO.

The buck stops with the CEO, but so does every decision – he or she has the power of veto. CEOs are the puppet-masters pulling the invisible strings in the background. Their agendas are the ones that win, their people rise to the top, and their priorities take precedence. But it can be intimidating dealing with the CEO, whether you’re an external consultant, sales person or an internal subordinate. Yet the CEO need not be a mystery. Every CEO is human, and he or she has needs that you can meet. Behind the façade is a real person with fears, insecurities, goals and aspirations. They have to manage the board, inspire their leadership team, deliver results and manage risk that could blindside or derail. They also need to build the corporate brand – but most neglect building their own.

Strategic selling is first and foremost defined by engaging early at the most senior level possible. You may not need to engage the CEO of the organization, but you do need to sell to the ‘CEO of the problem’ that you can help with. The person who actually owns the problem or opportunity, the one on the hook for delivering the result, the person who controls the funding and authorizes the decision – this is who you need to engage. Everyone else is a mere recommender or blocker.

So, how do you engage effectively at the CEO level? The very best leaders are focused on delivering results, making a difference, treasuring time, building people, and leaving a legacy. Here are ten rules to honor on your quest to engage successfully.

  1. Be a person of value – a domain expert who can help make things happen. No-one likes being sold to but they value relevant information, insight and perspective from someone with humble wisdom, a strong network and the gravitas to carry the conversation.
  2. Start at the end and lead with ‘why?’. Get to the point and be concise. Genuine insights are rare and never cliché, so do your homework and understand why the conversation is important. Only once you’ve anchored the conversation, should you talk about the what, how, who and when.
  3. Open powerfully by not talking about yourself. Make it all about them by showing that you’ve done your homework and that you understand how you can potentially help deliver their agenda, solve their problems, or realize their opportunities; both for them personally and professionally.
  4. Talk the language of leadership: positive outcomes and managing risk.
  5. Talk the language of business: delivering financial results and KPIs.
  6. Talk the language of legacy: sustained change that makes a difference in the lives of customers and staff.
  7. No faking-it and no bullshit. Know the industry and have evidence to support your assertions. Be masterful at telling great true stories but be conservative. Also be honest and transparent. If you don’t know, then say so.
  8. Always be early, have an agenda, respect time, follow-up in writing. In short – be a pro.
  9. Let them be in control. Ask them what they want to see happen after the meeting and what the next steps should be. But if they sponsor you down, always maintain your direct relationship – the right to contact them whenever necessary.
  10. Always deliver on every promise. Be rock-solid reliable.

People are best motivated by reasons that they themselves discover. Never therefore preach, sell or lecture. Instead ask great questions that cause self-reflection for the person with whom you engage. All of the above is relatively straight-forward but here is something that could change the way you create value for the most senior people you work with. The fact that you’re reading this means that you could execute.

Most CEOs are consumed by delivering for their company and many neglect their personal life and brand – burn-out is common. Every sales person should build their personal brand in social because people buy you before they buy what you’re selling. You should become an expert regardless of your age. It’s a skill that requires much research and nuanced effort but it’s essential. Why don’t you offer personal education and assistance to the CEO on how to build their personal brand in B2B social?

Here is an excerpt from my book, The Joshua Principle – Leadership Secrets of Selling, where Joshua’s father, a CEO, is giving his son, a salesman, advice on how to engage at the senior executive level. We pick-up the conversation with Joshua asking Mark about potential insights gleaned from reading the annual report of Zenyth, his must win deal.

“Anyway, there’s a lot to talk about with Zenyth. This meeting with their CEO is going to be critical. Do their financials reveal anything concerning what’s really driving their decisions?”

Mark opened a folder he had brought in with him. “It’s actually quite interesting. If I was on their board I would ask the CEO what they’re doing about all the cash on their balance sheet.”

“Isn’t cash a good thing?”

“Not necessarily. Too much cash on your balance sheet can make you a hostile acquisition target because the cash can fund financing costs. Cash is also an underperforming asset; it means you don’t know what to invest in for growth.”

“I guess Zenyth is conservative.”

“It’s not about being conservative. Too much cash on the balance sheet is a wasted resource. I’m pretty sure that the new CEO will be under pressure to look at acquisitions or some other plan for expansion. But they have a bigger problem; I’ve analyzed the last five years of numbers and had a look at recent analyst guidance – well, criticism really. Their sales costs, as a percentage of revenue, have been going up for the last three years in a row. Their margins are also being squeezed and I found an interview with the new CEO that pretty much reveals his hand.”

“Thanks for doing this. You must have spent most of the afternoon on it. Is that the interview last month written by Patricia Smith?”

Mark was impressed that his son had also tracked down and read the article. “David Thomas stated that client retention is his number one priority and that he wants delighted customers. I bet the reason they’ve been losing customers is that competitors are targeting them. When you have market dominance you’re a sitting duck for niche players to pick off your vulnerable customers.”

“Thanks Dad. I hadn’t made the connection with any of this. So would you say they were in growth, crisis or business-as-usual mode?”

“Why do you think it matters?”

Joshua explained the concepts he had discovered concerning the modes of business and the consequential motivation for decision-making. He fumbled with his own notes and showed them to Mark. “This is what I’m trying to figure out – the mode they’re in and how it translates to the things that are driving the CEO.”

“If I think about their situation in those terms I guess I would say they have a mild crisis – customer churn is consistently eroding profitability. If I were David Thomas [Zenyth CEO] I would invest in things that help retain and grow profitable customers. All businesses invest in strategies to drive top-line revenue but many neglect the fact that it is far more cost effective to retain a customer than acquire a new one.”

Joshua was busy taking notes as Mark continued in a measured tone. “The smart thing for David Thomas to do is invest money in limiting customer churn. That’s where he will get the best return on investment. He can continue the pressure on his sales operation to keep delivering new clients but he will only fix his profitability problem by stopping the defection of valuable customers.”

“Are you sure? How can you know all this from looking at their balance sheet?”

“All I know is that they have too much cash on their balance sheet and they’re suffering from eroding profitability which is positioned as a cost of sales problem. But one thing I’ve learned in business is that the problem is almost never the problem. Symptoms are not causes, and I think that if you get to have a genuine conversation with their CEO, he will admit that the real problem is customer churn rather than customer acquisition.”

Joshua looked up from the notes he had been scribbling. “But how do I have that kind of conversation with a CEO? I’m just a salesman.”

“You can have a conversation with your own CEO can’t you? Look, David Thomas is just another person but he’s under real pressure to deliver results. He needs to fix a problem he describes as a customer satisfaction challenge. His P&L describes it as a cost of sales problem. Their annual report describes it as eroding margins caused by competitors. They are a market leader defending their incumbent position. All you have to do is understand what keeps him awake at night – but don’t ask it that way. I hate it when salesmen ask that question. I usually say; ‘my wife – she snores rather loudly’… They always laugh too but then I ask if they have any other inane questions.”

Joshua stopped laughing as Mark continued. “The only thing a CEO dislikes more than amateurs who waste their time, is sales people who waste their time. Josh, you seem to have done your homework and I hope my input is useful, but you must have a business conversation with him. He’ll open up once he sees that you have genuine insight.”

Joshua rubbed his face with fingers combing back hair revealing a pensive look. “I can’t begin to tell you how far out of my depth I feel. If I botch this meeting with their CEO I’ll be finished with my boss.”

“Son, even the most successful men have insecurities. We all secretly worry that we are going to get found out. I feel like I’ve been out of my depth most of my life; I really mean it. Maybe David Thomas feels out of his depth too and you’re someone who can help to get one of his problems under control. If you succeed it will make your career.”

For sales people, here are some other articles I’ve written on the topic of engaging senior leadership:

Engaging the CEO Series

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Tony Hughes
Tony is an international keynote speaker, best selling author, leading professional selling educator, award-winning blogger and the most read LinkedIn Author globally on the topic of sales leadership. As an experienced CEO and company director with 35 years of sales and business leadership experience, he is ranked by Top Sales Magazine as the most influential person in professional selling in Asia-Pacific. Tony has served as Director of Sales for public corporations and as the Asia-pacific Managing Director for a number of tier-one global technology companies, and teaches 'modernized selling' within the MBA program at the University of Technology, Sydney. Tony also sits on a number of advisory boards, with clients including: Schneider Electric, New Zealand Government, Salesforce, TAL Life, Zip Water, Findex, BAE Systems, Flight Centre Travel Group, Red Hat, Agilyx, NEXTDC and UBT with their 4,000 member companies globally.