Making Your Case to Senior Executives

This month Dr. Suresh Gettala writes about the Talking To the C-Suite About Quality in the monthly ASQ Influential Voices post.

My take is a bit different than Dr. Gettala (and most others) in that I believe CEOs are so wedded to short term financial measures that if you are speaking to them you need to both appeal to this bias while also fighting to move the organization away from being led by such a bias. That task isn’t easy, the financial bounty heaped on CEOs makes it very difficult for them to think of the long term and about the normal customer experience.

In order to “make the sale” the advice is pretty simple, short term financial measures are what will work (most of the time). Clear data that shows cost savings or increased sales are what they want to see. Of course, we have all seen how easy it is to manipulate data to make a case for whatever you are arguing for. If you are making the case that other powerful people (in the room) want to be made and the CEO wants to hear those claims will be easily accepted most of the time.

If you are challenging the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) (and/or their supporters) you will have great difficulty getting your data listened to no matter how compelling it is. Knowing this going into your meeting is critically important.

If you can’t find a very clear case to be made for your position, strongly supported by difficult to refute data you may well want to just go along with the desires of those with power. I tend to fight for what I think is right, no matter if my chances of success are low, but this isn’t really a wise strategy.

The Starry Night at the MET with a teacher standing and students sitting

The Starry Night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Photo by John Hunter; see more NYC photos.

I do try to focus on building the organization into one that will support my belief in a customer focused organization build on a foundation of respect for people striving to continually improve results through experimentation but this is a challenge. And trying to talk to the c-suite about quality when they are not ready to adopt that model of management doesn’t do much good.

Though admittedly I am not a good salesperson, I succeed by making things work better not by spinning good stories about how things could be better. Good salespeople will have more success with the challenge of getting a skeptical crowd to accept change, but senior executives normally are not easy to sell on new ideas. My strategy is to build my reputation by achieving results using good management practices. That builds the case for using the management ideas I believe in and listening to what I say (based on past results instead of my charisma or communication skill).

My advice is to grow your circle of influence and build the capability of the organization to adopt a customer focused continual improvement management system. Once that is done, speaking to the c-suite is easy. Before that is done, speaking to them is still easy, unless you want them to change their short term financial focus.


As with all people, CEOs are influenced by good stories. So if your goal is to “make a sale” (for whatever you are selling) putting in stories that speak to their way of seeing things is always wise. By looking at the rhetoric they use and actions they have taken you should be able to see what they have a soft spot for in stories and use that to craft the stories you will tell to make your case.

In the rare case that the c-suite actually knows the gemba and knows what customers desire and believes in continual improvement your job is really not hard. All you have to do is show what those doing the work have come up with using (PDSA or whatever improvement toolsA3 reports…) and make the case. In such cases though usually there isn’t a need to sell the CEO on anything, the decision making has been pushed down to the appropriate level. There could be some cases though where things get pushed up to a CEO: a huge capital investment is needed, a big shift in company focus (for a particular product market), etc..

There are of course, lots of CEOs, and there are some that have different perspectives. If yours isn’t focused mostly on short term financial figures, wonderful, just craft your message to what they care about (for example, they may really focus on employees first [though much more often companies say this but their actions disprove it] or they really are passionate about customer service or they put their focus on innovation and long term thinking).

It probably should go without saying, but I decided to mention it anyway, CEOs are busy. Even more than with other communication you must hone your message to the critical core. But also be ready to answer question on specifics that they wish to dive into.

Related: The CEO is Only One PersonChange Management: Create a Culture Seeking Continual Improvement or Use Band-Aids?Kleptocrat CEOs and Their ApologistsThe Importance of Leadership by Those Working to Improve Management

One thought on “Making Your Case to Senior Executives

  1. Pingback: Influential Voices Reaction to Talking Quality to the C-Suite | A View from the Q

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