7 Simple Ways to Get Inside Your CEO’s Head

So you have a brilliant idea and finally get the chance to share it with your CEO or someone up the ladder in your company. But when you present it, you somehow fail to make an impression, and your idea goes nowhere. You conclude that either it—or your CEO—wasn’t as brilliant as you thought.

Chances are, it’s neither. If your idea is a good one, you probably failed because you communicated it poorly. People who get an opportunity to talk to their CEO often misread their audience. Good executives are not necessarily all-knowing sages; they’re people with a lot of demands on their time and a limited amount of energy to deal with them. But as busy as they are, they all share one trait: They’re very good at evaluating opportunities when they are presented well. To make an impression on a CEO you have to learn to think like one.

Here are a few simple ways you can get inside their heads:

1. Speak plainly. It’s not a CEO’s job to grasp every detail of a company’s offerings. You very likely understand your particular part of the business in greater depth than he or she does. So the best course is to present your idea in an easy-to-understand, jargon-free format. Speak plain English—or whatever language the two of you speak—and you’ll have a better chance of making a connection.

2. Be concise. CEOs never have enough time. If you can’t summarize an opportunity in ten minutes or a page and a half, you won’t get far. This doesn’t mean your idea has to be simple; rather it has to be understandable in straightforward terms. You can always provide a longer presentation later to explain it in detail.

3. Sell your idea, not yourself. It’s enormously tempting to try to come off as brilliant when you finally get the chance to stand in front of a senior executive. But your CEO is going to be interested in your idea, not you. Sell the idea, and you’ll inevitably sell yourself.

4. Put your idea in the context of the whole business. Remember that you work in one area of a business, while your CEO looks at the whole thing. You need to figure out how your idea impacts the overall picture. For example, let’s say you work in a billion dollar business and have found a simple way to increase revenue by 20 million dollars. That seems like a lot to you—and should be welcomed by any sensible executive—but you should set his or her expectations according to the scale of the opportunity.

5. Link it to ongoing initiatives. CEOs are serious when they lay out a vision for a company. If your company is making a big push into the cloud, don’t try to sell him or her on micro devices. That said, don’t give up on an idea because it’s not obviously relevant. You can usually find a way to express any opportunity as part of the current strategy—especially if it has the potential to increase revenue or cut costs.

6. Be willing to take risks. If you believe in an idea, offer to own it. Be ready to provide specific performance goals by which your idea can be judged. This is actually less risky than you might think. Even if you fail, executives may credit you for your effort and initiative—after all, they agreed to the idea too.

7. If you really think you have a great idea, contact your CEO directly. I know what you’re thinking: You’ll get in trouble if you reach out to the big boss. But in most cases, the worst that’s likely to happen is that you’ll get ignored. And when contacting a CEO, I advise getting creative. Don’t burst in their office unannounced wearing a toga, but stay away from email. I prefer Linkedin InMail to get someone’s attention. Or I’ll send a hand-written letter. You have to do something out of the ordinary to get noticed.

Needless to say, you can still do all this and not succeed. Some CEOs can be a little dense, but don’t lose heart. People who come up with great ideas often come up with lots of them. If you’re persistent, you’ll eventually find a place for yours, and it might even be as the CEO of your own company.

So what are your suggestions for talking with your manager’s managers?


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