Marketing HR to Your CEO

They Care About What Is Measured And Rewarded

CEO’s are always impressed by people that understand what is important to them. And in all cases I’ve ever run across, what is important to them in business is reflected in their evaluation and bonus criteria. Yes of course everyone is influenced by what is measured and rewarded but the additional factor with CEO’s is that they can significantly influence those criteria. The net result is that what they are assessed on has not been forced upon them, instead they are things that they believe in as well as that are important to the firm. Since VP’s of HR “own” compensation, it’s not that difficult to identify them. However other options are to read their speeches, read the annual report, identify areas where the budget is increasing or just ask around. Some of the common CEO hot buttons are: 

Can’t miss

  1. Share price (shareholder value)

  2. Profit (bottom line)

  3. Revenue growth (top line)

Works for most CEO’s

  1. Product margins

  2. Product brand

  3. Customer satisfaction

  4. Speed of product development (Lower time to market i.e. TTM)

  5. Output volume

  6. Output quality

  7. Expanding the firm’s product or service capabilities

  8. Customer retention and attraction

  9. Supplier & strategic partner satisfaction/retention

  10. Anything that gives them a competitive advantage


Once you have identified what is important to them, it’s time to develop a plan to influence them. Some of the steps that I recommend are listed below. Each is derived from marketing, selling, branding or PR. 

Steps In Marketing Yourself And Your Programs

Start your influence process by understanding the individual(s) you are trying to influence. Start with the CEO but it turns out that a similar approach works for most “C” level execs. Executives and CEO’s are different from most people. They didn’t get to the top without being laser focused and without developing their own agenda and their unique way of thinking. If you are truly going to help them accomplish their goals, you must first understand what gets their attention. This is especially difficult, but still possible, if you are in a low profile department like HR often is. During my many interactions with CEO’s, I have identified specific areas that seem to get their “immediate” attention. I’ve put my learnings into an outline to help trigger your thinking about what steps you might take. Of course, every item will not work for every CEO or manager but they should get you started on developing a plan to market yourself and the HR function to your CEO.  

Know your CEO –

After identifying their reward criteria, the next steps are:

·        Know the top 5 problems they are currently facing – Read their speeches on the company intranet, read their meeting agendas, ask their direct reports or their admin, or just ask them.

·        Know their key information needs – CEO’s are big on competitive intelligence. If you know how the direct competitor “does it” you will be an instant hero. (Talk to former employees that now work as competitors and to consultants and shared suppliers. Learn how to “trade” information with others)

·        Know the top 3 future problems they will soon be facing – Track environmental or economic factors, read articles by the top performers in our industry and reports written by industry analysts. Listen to their speeches, ask their direct reports or just ask them for their predictions

·        Know their expectations of you – Make sure you know specifically what they want from you. You must prioritize what they want into a “More of / less of” list. (Start with just asking them the More of / less of question. Ask them to prioritize their expectations. Ask them to quantify their expected outputs. Update it quarterly. If you have difficulty meeting them, send them a note listing what you believe their expectations are, and ask them to comment on it.).

·        Profile what it takes (what others have done) to become one of their key “advisors” – track the success and failure that others have had in getting their confidence so that they will turn to you when they need some “honest” advice. Begin the process by learning what it takes to build their respect and to gain their confidence. (Identify people that they currently "seek out” for advice. Ask them what they did to gain the CEO’s confidence. Also ask their admin.) 

Be “the” center for excellence:

The goal here is to have your department known as the “place to go” to find new ideas, best practices and developing talent. Even if you are an obscure department, you can impress your CEO by being the department that everyone looks to and copies because of your combination of innovation and world class results. The steps to take to become a center of excellence include: 

1) Be the “Talent Launching Pad” for the company. Be the place where the best employees start and develop. Think of business as being similar to professional sports. Everyone is impressed with the coach that can recruit and develop top talent. Some ways to impress them with your talent building ability include: 

·        Hire the best and brightest — Be the place where the best rookies start and develop. Be a great recruiter and you will get everyone’s attention but in addition, the top rookies will make it possible for you to be able to do better quality work.

·        Be “the” talent provider — Keep them as long as you can and then “give them” to other departments.

·        Be the Development “farm team” — Take raw talent and develop it faster and to a higher level than others. Have the best skill development systems and make sure every individual has a learning plan. 

The goal is to make everyone believe that you “must” pass through your department on the way to the top. In addition, be aware that you can’t be a talent “hoarder” because you need to release your talent to “C” level offices and departments if you want others to spread the word (through viral marketing) of how good you are at recognizing and developing talent. 

2) Become “the Idea Place”- Become the “Skunk Works” for new ideas and innovations. Become the “test pad” for refining new management processes and answers. Be the place others come to benchmark against for management processes and systems. The goal is to make the CEO believe that whenever any outstanding idea or innovation is implemented, that the original source of the innovation was your department 

·        Be the "Information Source” — Be the benchmark master. Know what information the CEO wants but can’t get (or doesn’t have time to get). Focus on how key competitors do things and summarize your learning’s for all, so that in the future everyone will naturally come to you with their “How do the best do it” questions. Be proactive and send the CEO relevant information and “answers” before they ask for them. Identify how the very best managers learn and use that information to become the “answer guy”.

·        Anticipate –Develop forecasts and do “if-then” scenarios in order to anticipate future management problems, and then develop management systems in advance of the need. Whenever a new problem arises that is a surprise to most, step forward with a pre-prepared plan before others have time to react

·        Know the customer –CEO’s as a rule are “in love” with their customers because they realize that without customers there would be no profit. As a result, it’s important to become close to the customer and be the “Voice of the Customer” inside the organization. Use your in-depth knowledge of their needs to generate ideas for sales, customer service and produce development.

·        Give the CEO short term “Heads-up” warnings — CEO’s are very busy and they hate to be blindsided. By covering their blindside and giving them early warnings or alert’s about things that are about to occur, they will learn to respect you and to consider you their “smoke detector”. Identify others in the organization that seem to be “the first to know” and find out how they do it. Put together an early warning network and use it to build your reputation as the “future thinker”.

·        Know technology – Quite often CEO’s are “technologically challenged”. Become an expert in the latest technologies and provide them with informal tutoring so that they can appear to be “up” on the latest technology trends.

·        Know the competitor – CEO’s are fanatical about what competitors and certain “name” benchmark firms are doing. Sending them benchmark information about what others are doing and planning will always get their immediate attention. Double check and use multiple sources to avoid embarrassment 

3) Become the “Go to Guy”. Be the person the CEO seeks out in time of crisis. Identify future issues and be ready with answers when the issue gets hot. Identify what he/ she looks for in a “go to guy”. Study the situations they need help in and the characteristics of their current “go to guy”. Become the first alternative in time of crisis. Anticipate problems and develop answers before the question is asked. Also learn to be a risk taker. CEO’s are, and they admire other risk takers, so be bold.

·        Develop a SWAT team – develop a team of HR experts that can act quickly to address any sudden crisis

·        Turnaround team – pre-identify weak business areas and be prepared to enter and fix them. Everyone loves someone that can turn a turkey into an eagle  

4) Build respect and avoid errors. Build a reputation for quality in everything your department does. Have double quality checks to avoid mistakes. CEO’s hate mistakes, sometimes more than they like success. Get “fresh eyes” to review your ideas and proposals before you present them. In fact, I recommend that you pay critical people to find errors. This quickly overcomes the natural tendency to be polite and say things are ok when they really aren’t. 

5) Market yourself and develop your image

Borrow key approaches from marketing in order to guarantee that the things you do are noticed. They include:

·        Manage your “internal image”. Occasionally CEO’s don’t respect you because they (and others) think your job is “easy. Manage their perceptions so that they see that such “mundane” areas as “harvest businesses”, staff functions and “cash cows” require great skill to manage. Make them aware that being close to the employees requires agility and responsiveness. Demonstrate how managing and motivating workers in non-glamour roles is difficult and demanding. Show how your department (because of its profit generation) makes what they do possible! Become a “Hero” and more visible by volunteering to give results presentations to key managers, at “all hands meetings” and in front of the board. Also send around well tested “idea pieces” and get HR economic results integrated into all key company-wide financial reports so that everyone sees your results and business impact

·        Build your “external brand”. Whenever possible, get written about in company advertising, the press and technical journals. Apply for functional HR and industry awards and get your firm listed on the Fortune best place to work list. Where possible, give speeches and write articles highlighting that you’re a “great place to work” and how well managed your company is. (Always mention the CEO’s name as a driving force). It’s important to be externally recognized because CEO’s do not always know what a “good HR person” really is so they substitute the “external” assessment of your ability for their own. 

6) Exceed their expectations: 

My personal experience (being a former CEO) has shown me there are several things that almost always impress them. These include: 

1.      Making them a lot of money

2.      Making them a lot of money (in case you missed it the first time)

3.      Making them look good, especially in front of the board of directors and in the press

4.      Knowing the business at least as well as they do and showing them you share their passion for it.

5.      Be agile and flexible. Give them options and have multiple answers for their questions.

6.      Be interesting, impressive and exciting as an individual 

7) Talk like them. Use dollars and numbers and data in all your conversations. Always quantify your accomplishments with output, competitive advantage, ROI and about the future not about process and the past. Be optimistic and don’t “whine”. Forget the words “No” and “I can’t” and replace them with the phrases “right away” and “I’ll find a way” to get things done. 

No matter what, don’t aim to just satisfy them, instead, exceed their expectations… and WOW them! 


The goal of this column was to provide you with some tools and strategies that can be used to influence senior managers. To them, almost every decision requires a "business case" and because they have learned to think in analytical terms and to quantify everything, you must also do the same. I have found that the prime reason that so many HR departments are constantly being cut by the CFO and the CEO is not because HR does not provide a strategic value but instead, it is because 1) HR does not “brag” and market itself and 2) HR fails to provide proof of their strategic value in a manner and language that CFO's and CEO's have come to expect… dollars and numbers.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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