From the Desk of Brad Smart: How HR Can Sell Ideas to CEOs

In a recent blog, we addressed the reality that Human Resources is usually the lowest paid, under-respected function that reports to CEOs, and suggested that improving Quality of Hire is the fastest path toward accelerating a career in HR. In this blog I share my personal conclusions about how to best “sell” CEOs on anything – a HR initiative, additional responsibilities, a pay rise etc.

As the “mostly” retired CEO of Topgrading, Inc. I have sold ideas to CEOs for 50 years. HR might propose Topgrading and get us a meeting with the CEO, but it’s the CEO who is responsible for setting and elevating the company’s standards and performance. That said, we have to close the sale.

How Not to Sell to CEOs.

Having assessed and coached hundreds of HR executives, working with CEOs to approve their developmental plans, we are intimately aware of both successful and unsuccessful approaches to persuading CEOs to do things.

  1. “We ought to do this because other companies are doing it.”

Maybe if leading competitors are doing “it” (remote work or whatever) the CEO will listen. But just because some approaches to HR issues are popular that won’t cut it.

  1. “Look at these features and benefits.”

Features can bore the heck out of CEOs, and “benefits” listed in a PowerPoint presentation might not be benefits the CEO cares about.

  1. “I need this; I worked harder than anyone during the pandemic and should get a raise.”

CEOs care about RESULTS, not hours worked. Did your hybrid work plan (two days remote) show good operating results and reduce turnover? Or is there anything else the CEO or board of directors are interested in?

How to Sell to CEOs: Use Active Listening

This will read like sales 101 advice, but each step is crucial when selling to CEOs.

 Step 1: Listen (listen 90% of the time, talk 10%).

Our version is much like what a HR manager should do before accepting a job offer. What are the CEO’s key strategic goals? How is HR connected, or not connected, to achieving those goals? “About half of our hires are disappointing – they fool us by magnifying successes and hiding failures.” “We have no good way to verify what candidates tell us.”

At Topgrading, we hear the CEO describe costly mis-hires and how those low performers make achieving strategic goals extremely difficult.

Step 2: Use Reflective Listening (reflect 90% of the time).

After hearing the answers to the questions in Step 1, prove you listened by playing key points back to the CEO, to their satisfaction. “You have only 25% high performers and you’re sure that your high performers spend half their time preventing and fixing problems caused by low performers.” “You say reference checks with people candidates supply are almost worthless.” “Did I miss anything?” You want to hear, “You have it right.”

Step 3: Do your research.

Anticipate 100 things the CEO may think or say, and do thorough research on the company history, markets, competitors, company finances, history of project approval/rejection, etc. Your proposal must mesh with the CEO’s strategic objectives, or … forget it. Yes a PowerPoint presentation might help but unless you are proposing the sale of the company, 10 or fewer slides is best. You want the CEO looking at you, judging your command of the topic, commitment, body language, and confidence … not looking at your slides; you might think your slides are clever and will appeal to the CEO, but think again.

Step 4: Make your proposal (talk 50%, listen 50%).

State how your request will help your CEO to achieve the organization’s stated strategic goals.

“Topgrading is the only hiring approach that has solved the problems of candidate hype and lack of verifiability. Here is how … “I propose running a pilot project in which a (unit, function, division) manager is trained in Topgrading and we measure the results.” Respond to questions. Try to avoid going back to slides.

Step 5: Leave when the CEO agrees to the next step.

Maybe the next step is a presentation to the Executive Committee, or for you to prepare a written proposal. Don’t become “chatty,” and bring up things that are related to your proposal and “interesting” to you. You might inadvertently open a can of worms.

The Active Listening concept is to ideally create or affirm your accountabilities when you take a job. But you can start the process at any time – next week, if your accountabilities are vague, or at your next performance review. “As a Human Resources manager I am responsible for overseeing performance reviews, and improving our processes. I’d like to improve the process starting with me – I fear my responsibilities are not connected to business strategy.”

Dr. Brad Smart is Founder and CEO of Topgrading, Inc. Topgrading is dedicated to helping companies of all sizes maximize the hiring of high performers. Topgrading assesses candidates for senior positions (where the costs of mis-hires are high) and trains all managers to create teams of almost all high performers.

Brad has seven published books on hiring; the most recent three (the first, second, and third editions of Topgrading) were all best sellers. On April 25, 2023 Brad, and President Chris Mursau’s new book, Foolproof Hiring (Forbes Books), will be released. Pre-order Foolproof Hiring on Amazon by clicking here.

Brad can be reached at

To learn more, download our free eGuide or attend our next Topgrading Webinar. Our webinar explains the most effective recruitment methods, how to immediately identify the most honest, high performing applicants, and how to (finally!) verify what candidates tell you (since reference calls are usually worthless).

Contact us to learn more.

Improve your hiring success with Topgrading. Our proven hiring process will transform your selection methodology so that you get better hiring results across all industries, including hiring HR professionals.  Our leadership and candidate assessment tools will help you assess, hire, retain, and grow outstanding team members. Contact us to learn more!

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