How to Get the CEO to Listen to You

Posted 04.06.2011

Last month,  I did a customized webinar for about 70 managers in a client company on “How to Build Executive Presence.”  To prep the content for the session, we asked about a dozen C suite and direct reports to C suite executives to give us their bullet point answers to the question, “How do you define executive presence?”

When I summarized their responses, the top three answers were:

  • Interpersonal engagement
  • Concise and clear speaking
  • Confidence

I saw some of these behaviors in action recently when I coached a CEO and her extended leadership team through an issue identification and problem solving session on barriers to growth in their company.  From my spot as coach and facilitator, I could see whose comments were landing with the CEO and top leadership and whose weren’t as much.  The people who nailed it exhibited those three characteristics of executive presence.

Specifically, here’s what they did to get the CEO to listen to them:

They knew what they wanted to say:  They had thought about what they wanted to say before they got to the meeting.   The most effective people had a beginning, middle and end to their comments that answered the questions What?, So What? and Now What?

They made it about the company and not about them:  The people who made the biggest impact with their comments stayed about as far away from whining as you could get.  They framed their comments in terms of what was best for the future of the company.  There was no “poor, pitiful me” tone to their remarks.

They had a clear point of view:  The people the CEO listened to the most had an informed and clearly held point of view.  They weren’t wishy-washy in the way they teed things up.

They backed up their point of view with facts and stories about the impact of the problem:  The most effective communicators shared facts and told real world stories that illustrated how the problem played out in real life and how that was hampering growth.  They used examples that everyone could easily understand and relate to.

They offered solutions that were easy to implement and likely to make a difference:  When we got to the offer solutions part of the meeting, the people who had the biggest impact were the ones that offered solutions that were simple and clear.  A good gauge of that was that they could easily get the core idea onto a Post It note.

Why do CEOs listen to people who take these kinds of approaches?  One reason is because most people who make it to the C suite have at least two things in common.  They’re prone to making decisions and they’re likely to make those decisions using objective rather than subjective criteria.  If you want the CEO to listen to you, you’ve got to frame what you have to say so that it’s based on objective, observable facts and it leads to actions that would make a positive difference on the issues that matter most.

That’s what I’ve noticed lately and over the years as well.  What’s your take?  What’s your best advice for how to get the CEO to listen to you?