When I was running a public company, a salesperson told me how another software firm had implemented his solution and, as a result, improved productivity. It was a pretty standard presentation about saving time and money, so there was nothing surprising there. But then he really got my attention by applying the expected productivity improvements to my earnings per share and the anticipated uptick in stock price. What did that salesperson do right? He connected with me at a meaningful level (earnings), prepared well for the call (used real data about my company) and gave me hope for a better future.
CEOs are almost always pressed for time, and we need people—both internal and external—to communicate efficiently with us. In the salesperson example, he kept the conversation at a high level. He presented an effective elevator pitch about his company and products and quickly got to the punch line. In other words, he valued my time and his, and kept the conversation at a cadence and level that was effective in light of the limited time we had together.
Here are a few additional suggestions on how to effectively communicate with CEOs:
Talk net. CEOs are accustomed to operating at a strategic level. We understand that there are numerous implications and nuances to any decision—some are apparent, some are not. Talking net is part of a bigger theme of “don’t waste my time.” Avoid going through every little detail when presenting to a CEO. Keep the conversation at a high level, unless you’re invited to take it into the weeds. Give us the opportunity to probe into the areas we really want to know more about. Your ability and choice to talk net will be appreciated.
Align the conversation with corporate strategy. Link your discussion to the goals, objectives and benefits that are strategically important to my company. This isn’t hard to do, even if you’re an outsider. That’s because many company objectives are almost universally true, and they’re not highly guarded state secrets. For example, nearly all organizations have plans to acquire and retain more customers, increase profits, gain manufacturing or distribution advantages or achieve a more defensible market position. You don’t need access to the business plan to know that those are key areas of importance to most CEOs. And with a little research, you can be even more knowledgeable and better prepared for a targeted and meaningful discussion.
Know that being “delegated down” is a good thing. I don’t want to waste my people’s time any more than I care to waste my own. Their time is an important corporate resource. I’ll only refer you to a vice president or a director if I think your offering might be useful to our organization. If I think your product really affects distribution, finance or another department, I’m not going to roll my sleeves up to dig deep into what you’re saying. Instead, I’m going to send you to the person that I’ve handpicked and trust to do those evaluations and make those recommendations. This is a good outcome.
Give me bad news early on. I prefer to hear bad news quickly and clearly. The focus isn’t about attributing blame or excessive posturing; it’s about how to organize our efforts toward the best outcome. Everybody knows the old adage that “nobody likes surprises.” But if problems fester, valuable time is lost and corrective options become limited. More lead time means more options about what can be done. Don’t procrastinate in bringing bad news forward.
Present solutions, not just problems.To grow an organization, you really have to rely on the judgment of your people. I try to surround myself with smart, thinking and capable people. When an issue arises, I expect them to explore well-thought-out courses of action. In fact, if an employee routinely reported problems without possible solutions, I would wonder whether we’ve hired the right person.
To summarize, bring me strategically important information that gives me hope for a competitive advantage. That will remind me why we’re meeting in the first place. Combine that with talking net and you’ve got a good chance of keeping a CEO’s attention.