Why CEOs Think Differently Than We Do

CEOs  marketing recommendations CEOs are challenging their marketing and communications teams to help chart the future of their organizations. It is their skills as conceptual thinkers that enable these communicators to envision the possibilities for supporting the organization’s goals.

If this is the case, then why do so many chief executives resist the recommendations of the very people they have selected to help drive change throughout the organization?

There can be many reasons, of course, from ill-conceived ideas to lack of budget, to the indifference of line managers. But the real culprit may be something very different. While communicators may be conceptual thinkers, their CEOs are more likely ruled by logic and hard facts. They tend to approach problem solving in a linear fashion.

Sound recommendations may fail because they aren’t organized the way CEOs think. That is why it’s so important to structure recommendations for marketing and communications programs that immediately demonstrate how they will benefit the organization because that’s the chief executive’s bottom line, especially during a tough economy.

Winning Presentations

Here are some tips for delivering a winning presentation to get approval for important recommendations:

  • Opening: outline the broad subject of the presentation
  • Presentation objective: this is the overall statement of how your ideas will benefit the organization. This is where a lot of presentations go wrong because the presenter leads with what he or she wants. Rather, the statement should answer top management’s question: why should I listen to this presentation; what’s in it for the company?
  • Key message points: think of your message as newspaper headlines supporting the benefits outlined in your presentation objective. How will the recommendations increase sales, save money, build a brand?
  • Supporting evidence: use facts, sales projections, statistics, etc., to back up your key messages.
  • Recommendations: summarize your key points and then propose a course of action for approval. Know the decision you want in advance.
  • Discussion: This is the most important part of your presentation. As you lead the discussion, you will build commitment for your recommendations, address any objections, and refine your proposal based on the discussion so that you get a favorable decision.
  • Summary: summarize the agreed-upon desired action. Even if all your recommendations aren’t accepted, don’t leave the meeting without a commitment to some sort of action. For example, if you can’t get your entire program approved, try to come away with a pilot project.

Remember, your overall goal is to link your programs to the company’s goals. Do that and you will win more than you lose. You’ll also gain the CEO’s respect for thinking like he does.

Leave a Reply


  1. This is very well said. having been an executive I understand this in a very intuitive way. The biggest problem is the time it takes to plow through all the information. Doing as you said, helps to cut to the chase so that you can assess the information quickly and then move on. That helps both parties. 🙂

    • Susan — I think the internet has shortened everyone’s attention span. If you don’t get to the point quickly, you’ve lost your audience.

  2. A very interesting and unexpected (in a good sense!) view of the two sides of the brain and how to work with people who use one side versus the side you use. Just excellent. I sent it to my wife (marketing). Regards, Frank

    • Hi Frank — I hope that your wife enjoys it, too. “Creatives” like to mull over all the options, while CEOs want us to come to the point. Let’s just say I learned that as one of life’s experiences!

  3. It must just be my wiring. I thought everyone was like that. For me the worst is when salesmen come to the door and try to go through this long list of things that have nothing to do with what they actually want.

    • Jon — my pet peeve is telemarketers who open the call by asking how I am today. I don’t particularly feel like telling them, especially when I know it’s just to soften me up for the sales pitch.

  4. The summary is so important. Many reports have an executive summary on the front page of the report itself, I guess one could try out that method for presentations that run into several power point slides.

    • Lubna — excellent idea. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. That old axiom still holds true.

  5. Agree with you Jeannette. You have to put yourself in their shoes and make a short to the point presentation.

    Present just a few arguments why things have to be done in a certain way. They don’t have the time for long and complicated presentations.

    • Catarina — I’ve read that past presidents of the U.S. insisted on a one-page summary of recommendations. I can understand why. They have so many decisions to make every day.Good lesson for the rest of us.

      • Yes Jeannette. And the same applies to CEO:s/Chairmen/women of huge conglomerates/multinationals and, not to forget, government ministers – or secretaries as you say in the US.

        People who complicate issues and take up too much time will not last long:-)

  6. Great post. It is so important to match the presentation to the CEO’s personality – if they like detail give them detail, if they want the big picture give them the big picture. Generally they like to make the final decision so options can be good too!
    We just ran a ‘Presence and Impact’ workshop for a group of East European professionals in a multinational who needed to persuade in English – so don’t underestimate the difficulty of persuasion for those whose first language is not English.

    • Colin — yes, understanding how the CEO likes to receive information is important, as you state. If there is a language barrier, then be sure to include lots of images, diagrams and charts in your presentation, and minimize the text. That should help!

  7. Interesting post, Jeannette.

    I have 2 responses:
    1) too often CEO’s have egos so large that they don’t like an idea unless it’s their own, so you somehow have to get their to think your idea is theirs so that you get buy-in.
    2) there are some CEO’s who just don’t know how to truly delegate authority. They have a team in place, yet they insist upon meddling in the execution of directives the team has the authority to handle. What a waste of time and energy!

    My book, “Before You Say Yes …” discusses those issues in the world of non-profit volunteerism.

    • Doreen — I’ve seen a lot of presenters crash when they became too smug about their own ideas. Good advice about explaining why the ideas you’re presenting reflect the CEO’s own point of view.

  8. One thing I’ve told people more than once when trying to sell to a large company is to remember that you don’t just have to sell the person you are talking to, you have to give them the right tools to sell the person up the food chain who makes the final decision on the budget. Providing them with facts, figures, and showing them what your reporting will look like after the fact plays right into everyones comfort zone.

    • Scott – very good point. Most people selling into a company don’t ever get to meet the CEO. They’ve got to sell the people who sell the CEO.

  9. Great post and certainly a very common issue. I have recently met a very interesting guy on a Transatlantic flight (not in Business Class I have to mention) who introduced himself to me as an Innovation Coach. His ‘job’ was basically coach CEOs and other senior management of blue chip companies on different ways of thinking (thinking outside the box, the spreadsheet and the loss/profit margins) and hence avoiding the typical pitfalls such as for example the chief executives’ resistance to take on board the recommendations of their staff. Interestingly the chap is mainly mandated/hired by the supervisory board of companies where – according to him – experienced and successful executives sit, who think beyond the board rooms of the one particular company. The other businesses he’s working for are the ones which are generally more innovative in nature, like media and communication companies. We concluded our conversation that there is still a long way to go for the traditional CEO to open to this type of life coaching for the CEO. Certainly a business to look into (me thinks).

    • Trevor — it’s true that CEO’s need to be more open to new ideas, and how these ideas are communicated. The linear way of thinking is not the only way. CEOs need to be creative, too!

  10. One would think the presentation structure above seems pretty straightforward. It shouldn’t matter whether a person is a conceptual thinker or a strategic thinker. All writers/presenters need ask what the bottom line is and if they are in line with their objectives. In fact, the presentation outline above is akin to what a great lesson plan looks like. I guess that makes most teachers CEOs. Not!

  11. Great tips Jeannette! I’ve worked with my share of CEOs and I’ve always found that they tend to have a somewhat short attention span when it comes to details. I always found that by preparing a talking-points document with lots of white space and bullet points of what we had to discuss works. They usually like having a place to jot down their thoughts and it helps them to focus. – Oh! . . . and always keep it to 1 page . . . always! 🙂

    • Sherryl — CEOs are busy people. They spend most of their time with the line people. When the communications people show up I honestly believe the CEO is thinking, “these are the people whose expenditures fall below the line (eating into profits).” So that’s another hurdle to keep their attention!

      • Talk about hurdles Jeannette! – Try being from the Information Technology department with CEO’s who aren’t computer literate. They can be intimidated and fear embarrassment to boot. Like communications people, we’re looked at as an expense too. It’s a challenge for sure.