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How to Get the CEO to Talk With You

This question remains top of mind for executives across industries and roles.

Key points

  • The CEO is your ultimate customer.
  • Many people fail to get the attention of the CEO; their mistakes are preventable.
  • Five tactics will help get CEOs to talk to you, maximizing financial success, and feeling your work matters.

A colleague recently asked, “How can I get the CEO to talk with me?” This question remains top of mind for executives across industries and roles.

In reflecting on 30-plus years of advising CEOs (and being one), I have some thoughts to share about why this question matters, what the pitfalls are, and how to achieve this worthwhile goal tactically.

Why do you need to talk to the CEO?

Whether you are a psychologist (like me), lawyer, investment banker, private equity investor, nonprofit executive director, or any other kind of employee, you want the CEO to talk with you. Why? Because CEOs are powerful, authorized to make decisions, and in control of the biggest budgets.

If, as a businessperson, you seek to optimize your positive impact, financial performance, and personal compensation and truly feel your work is making a difference in the lives of others. The CEO is your ultimate “customer.” For example, consider the impact of providing a product or service to a single CEO of an average-sized Fortune 500 company. As of March 2024, Fortune 500 companies employ 31 million people worldwide and represent two-thirds of the U.S. GDP with $18.8 trillion in revenues, $1.7 trillion in profits, and $43 trillion in market value (Fortune, 2024). Serving that one CEO can thus have a ripple effect of positive impact on billions of people, both directly and indirectly.

What’s the Challenge?

skynesher / iStock
Source: skynesher / iStock

The problem is, you’ve likely never taken a class called “How to get the CEO to talk with you.” Even top MBA programs do not specifically train students on how to get the CEO’s attention. It is no surprise, then, that so few people figure out how to get the CEO to talk with them.

For brevity, I’ll list the most common pitfalls we see in advising CEOs: being too afraid even to try, staying under the radar, taking a generic approach, transmitting “content” without listening, proposing topics that are irrelevant to the CEO, lacking credibility, moving too slowly, furthering your own agenda versus theirs, coming off as too "salesy," and failing to follow-up.

5 Non-Obvious Tactics to Get the CEO to Talk With You:

1. Show the CEO That Your Work Is Relevant to Their Goals. All CEOs have gatekeepers. Know when you are talking with one. And figure out how to get them to share your work with the CEO. After a C-Suite client of ours mentioned one consulting project that was particularly impactful, we asked him to share his enthusiasm with his CEO, whom we had not yet met. One week later, the CEO summoned our client team to the firm’s headquarters, and we had the opportunity to explain why it was so successful and recommend other places and situations across the CEO’s purview that would benefit from similar work.

2. Overprepare With “Empathic Imagination.” When I was a college student, I remember a successful consultant at a networking session told me, “Most people don’t prepare. Sure, they might skim the bio of the person they are meeting, but they don’t really prepare. You will stand out if you overprepare.” One of my colleagues put overpreparing into practice a few weeks ago ahead of her first meeting with a CEO. She did much more than spend two minutes reading the CEO’s bio. Instead, she spent about five hours preparing for the meeting—reading a myriad of articles, watching dozens of YouTube videos, anticipating with what we call “empathic imagination”—the CEO’s likely goals, fears, contextual circumstances, and proclivities.

3. Move Fast. CEOs have a lot to do; they’re always juggling between priorities. The effective ones are extremely decisive—they think fast, weigh the pros and cons, and move fast on decision-making. Time is money. Time is the scarcest resource we, as humans, have; for CEOs, it’s precious. In fact, in gathering 60,000 hours’ worth of data on 27 CEOs’ schedules, Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter and Nitin Noria quantified how “always on” CEOs are; they even work on 79% of weekend days and 70% of vacation days (Harvard Business Review, 2018). Respect CEOs by moving at their speed very fast, and, in return, they favor doing business with you more than with someone who moves slowly.

4. Find Out What the CEO Is Working on That Is “Hard but Important.” How can you figure that out? Do your research beforehand. Then, in the meeting, simply ask, “What are you working on that is hard but important?” That question will uncover topics that are of great interest or concern to the CEO.

5. Phrase Your Services in the Form of Questions to be Answered. Then Ask, “Do You Want My Help?” If you are like most people, you are terrified about being perceived as a salesperson. One tactic for not coming across as too salesy to the CEO is to phrase your services in the form of a question. For example, instead of asking the CEO, “How many executive assessments do you want?” a self-serving question focused on your needs, we’ll find a way to center the question on one of the CEO’s interest areas. For instance, you might say, “It sounds like your biggest questions are, ‘Who should be the next CFO I hire? How can I help Jen onboard into her new Asia-Pacific country manager role? and How should I play to my strengths and minimize my weaker areas in this coming year?’” Once the CEO responds, “Exactly,” you ask, “Would you like my help?” The CEO will most likely say, “Yes.”

Carry these five tactics forward and continue to follow up, and you will find the CEO wants to talk with you both now and in the future. Your career will be full of meaningful impact, success, and fun.


(2024). Fortune 500. FORTUNE.

Edinger, S. (2014). Get Over Your Fear of Sales. Harvard Business Review.

Nohria, N. & Porter, M.E. (2018). How CEOs Manage Time. Harvard Business Review.

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