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So You Want to Serve CEOs? 5 Critical Questions to Ask Your Organization

by Marshall Cooper

CEOs are busy individuals who can rarely afford errors. In working with them, you may only get one chance to do things the right way. Thoughtful preparation, including answering these five questions, will help you develop into a trusted advisor, provide real value for the CEOs you serve—and and get results for your own organization.

  1. Do we understand the CEO market?

CEO responsibilities vary widely depending on company size, industry and culture. Your organization needs to understand the various CEO personas to adequately understand their needs and motivations.

The large company CEO (annual revenue $1 billion +), for example, is typically engaged in strategic issues over a long time frame. This CEO must often deal with questions like which business lines to invest in, harvest or divest, how to motivate, groom and attract up-and-coming talent and key executives, how to deal with investors and/or regulators, and more. Significant responsibility for vendor selection and needs identification can often rest with functional executives, with input or final decision-making coming from the CEO. Most likely publicly listed, the large company CEO spends significant time managing investor relations, company image and board relations.

An upper-mid-market CEO (annual company revenue $100 million-$1 billion) faces many of the same challenges as a large-company CEO, but without the same resources. This places added demands on the individual, as he or she must assume additional responsibility in key functions like strategic planning, corporate finance, mergers/acquisitions/divestitures, international issues, talent development and management, technology and more. The upper-mid-market CEO often conducts need identification and vendor selection by his or herself, with input from key executives.

Lower-mid-market ($10 million to $100 million annual revenue) and small company CEOs (under $10 million revenue) have their own unique characteristics, and are most often the sole or critical decision maker when it comes to strategic investments. Most likely privately owned, investment funds in the lower-middle market company often come out of personal or family assets.

Understanding these key segments of the CEO market is a critical building block in designing, communicating and executing products and services that successfully serve CEOs.

  1. Can we individualize?

Like the fictional town of Lake Wobegon in which author Garrison Keillor says every child is above average, every CEO considers his or her company to be special. By design, your organization must treat each CEO with the individualized attention they seek and deserve. Attempts to serve CEOs in a uniform manner to serve your own business processes will backfire. Ask your marketing and sales teams, for instance, whether they ask CEO prospects to conform to their own rigid sales process. Doing so sends the wrong signal to prospective CEO clients: that you’re treating them as commodities and are not focused on their needs.

  1. Do we really understand CEO needs?

Serving CEOs requires a strategic mindset. Conversations must revolve around benefits, rather than the language of features. Partners who understand and can help CEOs achieve their strategic business goals will earn trust and opportunities to work with their clients’ organizations.

  1. Can we execute flawlessly?

CEOs are a demanding lot. Their time is valuable, and their investments are precious. When a CEO gets involved with a partner, that relationship reflects on them personally. Judgment of people and partners is a core competency of every successful CEO, and there may be no faster route to the exit than disproving that judgment. Partners and vendors who reaffirm that relationship by providing business value will keep their place of trust. The corollary, however, is also true: when trust is broken even in a single instance, CEOs will almost never give a second chance—and will tell their peers about poor experiences.

  1. Can we measure value?

Nothing speaks to CEOs more powerfully than the language of Return on Investment (ROI). Every profit-making entity looks to improve profitability, so partners that understand and can improve profit drivers will enjoy access, investment and continued trust among CEOs. If your value is hard to explain to CEOs, it will be hard to sell to CEOs. Make it easy for CEOs to understand your value proposition by translating it into ROI.