How to get C-Suite buy-in: Turning a critical CEO into an ecosystem business believer

It's sad but true: partnership teams are often the first on the chopping block when it comes to cutting costs. Many CEOs see the partnership as a luxury, a nice-to-have, or another cost center.

As partnership professionals, we know that's wrong because we see partnerships' huge potential. We know that smart investment into ecosystem business partnerships could be the biggest strategic blunder the C Suite makes. But how do we convince them? That's what this article is all about. 

Maybe it's us?

Let's start with some introspection. I used to tell my salespeople: "If the prospect doesn't get how valuable we are, we should blame ourselves, not the prospect." When your prospect is a CEO, you must understand their thoughts. This prompted me to reflect on my management consulting days, working with Fortune 500 CEOs.   

What I learned was that these people often think and prioritize differently. They're also very busy, and there are always people vying for their attention. If you want them to notice you, you must think carefully about your communication. It's not just about what you say: how you say it is just as important, if not more so. 

You need to understand your audience to deliver the right message in the right way. And audiences don't get much tougher than the C-Suite. Here, we will consider 8 points, or tactics, for an effective pitch. I aim to help you get more buy-in and ensure partnerships remain a key topic on the strategic agenda.

Understand their pain points and strategic goals

In my experience, CEOs always have a few topics or issues they care deeply about. Of course, these vary a great deal. But one thing is certain: a CEO will expect each project or department to help them tackle that specific issue or reach a strategic goal. If it does not, then it often ends up deprioritized, forgotten, or eliminated. 

So, for any particular CEO, you need to determine the pain points or goals. Then, tie partnerships back into that. For example, if they care about reducing churn, show them how they can do that by working with agency ecosystem partners and pushing integrations. If they're all about more sustainable customer acquisition, emphasize how partners will give you reach, increase win rates, and boost deal values. 

Partnership: a skeleton key 

Here's the good news: partnerships contribute to almost all strategic goals. That means linking your presentation to a topic a CEO cares about will always be possible. You need to figure out which one your particular CEO needs to hear. I like to start conversations or presentations with the relevant pain point to get their attention from the beginning. The more pressing that challenge, the more closely they will listen.

Think big picture, but show a clear path.

CEOs think big. Many of them are visionaries. To capture their interest, you must also see the big picture. They don't care about small topics; they want the big stuff. Give them a vision of where their organization could be headed with an ecosystem business motion. Ensure they understand you're not just helping them generate a few leads. Instead, show them you're building a moat to make their organization more powerful and differentiated. 

But - and this is important - don't overdo it. CEOs understand the difference between an illusion and a vision extremely well. A vision includes a way of reaching the grand destination, while an illusion doesn't. 

Once you've painted a picture of where to take them, map out the route. CEOs get promised all kinds of things all the time. What they don't always get is a clear path to success. By providing one, you'll stand out. 

In other words, prepare for the big question: "What are the next steps?" Be ready for this question. Answer it with the same approach. Don't waste time talking about some small initiative. Instead, focus on the big things, maybe even aspects of the process that call for their input or commitment. For example, a CEO does not care about minor partner tiers adjustments. But they care about a shift from reselling to co-selling and what that change will mean for partner-sourced revenue. 

Simplify, keep it short, and cut the fluff

Of course, the people in the C-Suite are smart. But they are also overloaded and have to perform multitask continually. So they tend to have short attention spans. They get frustrated when they don't understand or feel you are wasting their time. If your CEO has twelve meetings daily and needs to work through 300 emails, they does not appreciate anyone draining their time. But they will appreciate anyone who respects their time and keeps their message short and to the point. 

That's easier than it sounds. It just takes time. We will probably never know who said it first, but I love this quote: "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter." Do yourself and your CEO a favor: take the time, and invest it in writing that short, concise update (probably an email is better than a letter, though!). And while you're at it, keep it simple. 

Nobody likes pretentious, "fancy" talk, least of all CEOs. I learned this the hard way as a young consultant (that's a story for another time). So, if the CEO you're addressing doesn't have a partnership background, don't talk about channel partners or PRMs. Instead, use terms and phrases they will understand. Keep your presentation light on text; every sentence should add value wherever you can, and use simple visualizations. 

When less really is more

Finally, pay attention to your timing. Don't ask for a 3-hour workshop. Instead, aim to impress with a hyper-focused, super-productive 30 minutes. Nobody else is doing that, which is why you should. 

Money, money, money: show them the ROI

It's all about making money in the C-Suite. And I'm not just talking about revenue. They care about profits and ROI. This makes sense, but people lose sight of that all too often. I sure did in the past. Many partners make the mistake of thinking: "but surely they will understand that this will make us a boatload of money." This just won't cut it because they won't. I have seen CEOs sort projects by the expected ROI or revenue potential, depending on what they optimized for. 

They do this because they are very rational in decision-making. Turn that to your advantage. Show them how partnerships will fund themselves. Also demonstrate how partnerships help other departments to be more successful. For example, talk about how they increase win rates in sales. And never forget to talk about profitability. That's especially important now, as we're heading into a recession.

These are a CEO's priorities because they're accountable when all is said and done. They need to report to their board and show them how they have become (more) profitable. You're largely irrelevant if you can't tie partnerships into that mission. Almost daily, I talk with fellow SaaS founders and CEOs about profitability. CEOs who don't believe that partnerships contribute to that are the first to kill their partnership departments. 

Be ambitious but don't overpromise

CEOs are super ambitious by nature. That's one of the key traits that enabled them to rise through the ranks. It's also something they readily recognize in others. When you talk to a CEO, you need to show that you share that mindset, want to go big, and are there to bring them the big wins. 

If you are too conservative, they may write you off. But be careful: overpromising can backfire. For example, telling a CEO that the first partner-sourced deals may close in three months will likely land you in trouble. Don't make promises like this unless you can fulfill them because the people you're talking to forget seldom. Your promises must be realistic and ambitious enough to be considered worthwhile. 

Manage those expectations

It all comes down to managing their expectations. For example, you may be dealing with a CEO who rose through the ranks in sales. In that case, ensure they understand that managing indirect sales and ecosystem building  is not the same as setting up a sales organization. 

They must understand that partners take longer to onboard, get excited about your brand, and trust you. All of that has to happen before these relationships start to generate value. Be upfront about that. If a CEO says, "So this will be up and running in three months," that's an opportunity to set realistic parameters. Your response: "We'll get there in 9 months, but here's why it's worth it." Once these expectations are clarified, commit to keeping them posted throughout the process. CEOs usually get involved only when things go wrong: keeping them in the loop and giving them regular updates is likely to be a refreshing change of pace. 

Use data, benchmarks, and case studies - but be super relevant

You can probably think of at least one study or statistic pointing to the importance of partnerships. Maybe you have a data set showing that partnerships double deal sizes. You've been keeping it up your sleeve, and you expect it to make the C-Suite sit up and take note. It's your trump card, after all.

My advice: don't play it. Every vendor makes promises like that, and the C-Suite have heard them all:

If {X} then {double} sales/profits/something else that's meant to sound enticing. 

It's generic, and it doesn't get anyone excited. So how should you be using data instead?

Get specific with your facts and figures 

First, make it concrete. Talk about a key competitor or a company that your audience respects. Show them how that company is crushing it by leveraging its partner ecosystem business. Use data to show the causal links. Now, you've got their attention. 

Second, make sure the data and examples you provide are relevant to the people in the boardroom with you. For example, if you're talking to an early-stage startup CEO who's just broken into the 7-figure revenue range, speak to their circumstances. Don't waste time explaining how Hubspot or Salesforce are overwhelming ecosystems. That'll do more harm than good because it's not relatable. 

Instead, talk about a company like Gorgias or Optilyz, which went from $1 million to $10 million, with partnerships driving the bulk of that growth (50% and 70%, respectively). You're welcome). That is a story that will get backs straightening up in chairs. By telling it, you're showing that you understand that particular CEO's needs and the risks they're facing.

After all, managing risk is important to the C-Suite. If you want to get them on board, show them that you understand how it's done and don't just shoot from the hip.

Note: When it comes to data specific to your company and size, check out the  "2024: Year of Partnerships" report we just published with our friends at Allbound.

Get VPs on board: they have the CEO's ear

To communicate successfully with the C-Suite, you need supporters on your side. The VP of Sales or Marketing can be your biggest supporter mostly. Keep in mind that the CEO will talk to their trusted VPs often and may even rely on their judgment. If you have them on your side, you're one step closer to winning them over as an ecosystem advocate.

The bigger the organization, the more this matters. CEOs rely on sound advice from other people in large companies even more. I experienced this myself when consulting Fortune 500 companies on strategy. One of my earliest mentors told me that decisions never get made in the boardroom. The decisions have been made by the time it ends up in the boardroom because all the relevant decision-makers are already on board. 

The juice is worth the squeeze.

That lesson stuck with me. I admit that sometimes, I found it frustrating to have to go from stakeholder to stakeholder and get them on my side. But in the end, it always worked wonders. Regarding partnerships, the VP of Marketing, the VP of Sales, and the VP of Customer Success are usually the ones you need to have on your side. 

Take them on a journey without giving them work.

Let's conclude with an interesting one. We've already mentioned the fact that these folks are overloaded. So you don't want to be the cause of yet more work for your CEO. The C-Suite loves an independent decision-maker. However, they also love to be part of the journey. 

They like to know what's happening and love a success story. Let's say you've just heard back from a senior leader at Salesforce who loves what you're doing and wants to get you in front of their team or even a few customers at Dreamforce. Share that with your CEO! These things matter to them. But there's a fine balance to strike here. You don't want to overdo the "updates on a great conversation" on Slack. That can start to feel like work. At the same time, you do need to keep them involved. I think monthly updates are the happy medium. You can even reuse them, and repurpose them to target those VPs we talked about earlier. 


Converting CEOs into ecosystem business advocates is not easy, but it is possible. More than that, it's really important to work because it's crucial to activating unlocked potential. It's taken me years of experience to develop the skills and know-how to make this happen. And I truly hope that by sharing my insights, I can help to move the conversation forward. Ultimately, I believe that with these techniques and approaches, we can convince more and more CEOs that "saving cost" on the partnership team is a strategic error in the long term. 

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