Here is your chance. You don’t want to blow it.
You have a meeting scheduled with a CEO. Your goal is to convince her …
- to spend $1m on your product or service, or to make a large donation to your cause.
- to hire you, to promote you, or to give you your dream job.
- to invest in your idea.
What are ineffective ways to convince a CEO?
Many people “show up and throw up” and push a lot of information at the CEO—either verbally, or by PowerPoint. I’m not sure what the reason is why many unpersuasive people follow this approach. Maybe it’s to “show you know what you are talking about.” But it does not make a CEO say yes. I recall when my firm was interviewing law firms. Two partners from one firm came to a lunch meeting at a restaurant with a thick glossy marketing brochure. I remember the ominous “thud” the document made as it hit the table. By the end of the lunch, I understood a lot about their firm and their goals, but they did not know much about mine. We did not select that firm.
Another bad approach is to phrase your request as a “we ought to.” CEOs don’t decide to do things just because other people say they ought to do something. Or worse yet is when people only talk about why they want something to happen, fully ignoring the wishes, concerns, and perspective of the CEO.
Why listen to me?
The advice in this blog today is not based on a large sample size scientific study which my colleagues and I have conducted over decades (which is the research approach we follow for our books). This is just a blog. I’m telling you what persuasion approach has worked in convincing me in my 25 years as CEO of ghSMART. Also, my colleagues and I have collectively advised thousands of CEOs and we have learned valuable lessons about the do’s and don’ts of convincing CEOs of all size companies.
Successfully convince a CEO in 3 steps
1.Seek first to understand the CEO’s perspective. That is Steven Covey’s advice. It needs no further explanation. Your first step in discussing a topic with a CEO is to put all your energy into asking probing questions, listening, and learning what the CEO thinks about a topic and why. Forget about your agenda or your needs for a moment.
A CEO of a $10b+ company called me yesterday to learn more about our approach to CEO succession. But I didn’t start with that. I started with asking him about what his goals are, what his concerns were, what his timeline is, whom the relevant people are on the board and his management team, what are different views about this topic on the board, what his future career plans are, etc. Only in the last 2 minutes of the 40-minute conversation did I share our approach. The CEO seemed pleased with the conversation and invited my colleague and me to fly to meet with him and take the next step.
2. Reflect the CEO’s perspective, to their satisfaction. This step is hard. Most people cannot objectively reflect or restate another person’s perspective about a topic without putting their own personal slant on it. I first learned this step during my Psychology Ph.D. training during a class on conflict resolution. At this step, you must restate the CEO’s perspective on the topic, simply, and without putting words in their mouth or trying to spin it in your favor. You know you have succeeded at this step once the CEO says the magic word. The magic word is “exactly.” This means that the CEO believes that you understand their perspective. Then, and only then, have you earned permission to move to the final step.
3. Propose your idea, as a way to help the CEO achieve her goals. The mindset for this step is not that you are about to trick or fool a CEO into doing something that’s not good for them. Your mindset is that you are about to convince a CEO to do something that is good for them. (And by the way, if what you are about to propose is not in the CEO’s best interest, then don’t propose it!) A simple way to propose your idea is to say, “Your goals are X, your concerns are Y, so I propose you do Z.” The following story will illustrate this approach.
One of my colleagues named Vamsi recently attempted to convince my colleagues and me to support him in investing in a new product idea.
In step 1 (seek first to understand the CEO’s perspective), he introduced the topic in casual conversations. He asked probing questions: “What do you think are the potential benefits and costs of investing in this area?” “How might a product like this help or hurt our colleagues?” “How might it help or hurt clients?” “What is your risk appetite financially for investing in a new product idea?” “What would you have to see happen to consider this a success?” “What do you sense competitors are doing, or are planning to do, in this area?” “Long-term, do you see our firm having a strategic capability in this area, and why or why not?” He asked a lot of questions. We talked. He listened. He took notes and really understood our perspective, our wishes, our concerns.
In steps 2 and 3 (reflect the CEO’s perspective to their satisfaction, and then propose your idea as a way to help the CEO achieve their goals), my colleague took a big risk. He had done a couple months’ worth of research and pilot testing between steps 1 and 2. He asked for some time at an all-company summit to share progress on his idea and to have the opportunity to earn some buy-in.
We said OK because we have a “freedom” culture at our firm, where we try to reward innovation and proactivity. And if he failed to convince my colleagues, I would have likely been a “no” on the idea.
Vamsi started his presentation with “Imagine a future where…” and he reflected all the major dreams, wishes, concerns, fears, and hesitations which he heard from us on the topic. He shared the results of his pilot tests and his research, and showed evidence for why our specific wishes and dreams were likely to be achieved if we pursued his idea, and how our concerns would be managed transparently. Then he used some reverse psychology: we could just let the idea die and he would respect that decision, or if there were enough support for the idea, then he would commit the time and energy to make it a success, for all our benefit.
Before he finished his last sentence, my entire firm, all of us—consultants, senior leaders, executive assistants, HR team members, the finance and IT teams—leapt to our feet in a standing ovation of support that lasted three times longer than a “polite” standing ovation lasts.
My colleague strutted off stage with a well-earned spring in his step. He knew his presentation was convincing.
Days later, after putting the finishing touches on his plan, the Management Committee and I approved his idea. As a result of my colleague’s effective persuasion, I believe my colleagues will gain a new product that will help them be successful, our clients will benefit, and our firm will continue to innovate and to serve leaders as a pioneer in our industry.
And contrary to popular belief, great ideas don’t sell themselves. It takes a skillful leader to successfully convince a CEO.
Dr. Geoff Smart is Chairman & Founder of ghSMART, the leadership advisory firm. The firm exists to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world. In 2020, ghSMART was ranked the #1 best consulting firm to work for in overall satisfaction, according to Vault. The firm was also ranked #1 in its industry in the areas of challenging work and client interaction.
ghSMART has published three bestselling leadership books: Who, Power Score, and The CEO Next Door. Geoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.