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

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

As partnership professionals, we know that’s wrong, because we see the huge potential that partnerships hold. We know that cutting investment into partnerships could be the biggest strategic blunder that 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 really need to understand how they think. 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 how you communicate. It’s not just about what you say: how you say it is just as important, if not more so. In some cases, the medium really is the message. 

To deliver the right message, in the right way, you need to understand your audience. And audiences don’t get much tougher than the C-Suite. Here, we’re going to consider 8 points, or tactics, for an effective pitch. My goal is to help you get more buy in and ensure partnerships remains 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 that they care deeply about. Of course, these vary a great deal. But one thing is for sure: 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 figure out what those pain points or goals are. 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 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 it will always be possible to link your presentation to a topic that a CEO cares about. You just need to figure out which one your particular CEO needs to hear. I personally like to start out conversations or presentations with the relevant pain point, so that I have their attention from the very 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 need to see the big picture, too. They don’t care about small topics, they want the big stuff. Give them a vision of where their organization could be headed with ecosystems. Make sure they understand you’re not just helping them generate a few leads. Instead, show them that you’re building a moat that will make their organization more powerful and more 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 you want to take them, start to map out the route to get there. 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, be ready 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 a minor adjustment in partner tiers. But they do care about a shift from reselling to co-selling, and what that change will mean for partner-sourced revenue. 

Simplify, keep it short, cut the fluff

Of course, the people in the C-Suite are smart. But they are also overloaded and have to multitask continually. So they tend to have short attention spans. The moment they don’t understand, or feel like you are wasting their time, they get frustrated. If your CEO has twelve meetings a day and needs to work through 300 emails, she does not appreciate anyone draining her time. But she will appreciate anyone who respects her time and keeps their messaging 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. This is something I learned 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 background in partnerships, 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, 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 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 myself 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 when it comes to decision making. Turn that to your advantage. Show them how partnerships will fund themselves. 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 when all is said and done, they’re accountable. They need to report to their board and show them how they have become (more) profitable. If you can’t tie partnerships into that mission, you’re largely irrelevant. On an almost daily basis, 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, that you want to go big, and that you’re there to bring them the big wins. If you are too conservative, they may simply 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, is likely to land you in trouble. Don’t make promises like this unless you can fulfill them, because the people you’re talking to seldom forget. The promises you make must be both 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 from sales. In that case, make sure they understand that managing indirect sales is not the same as setting up a sales organization. 

They need to understand that partners take longer to onboard, to get excited about your brand, and to trust you. All of that has to happen before these relationships start to generate value. Be upfront about that. If a CEO says something like: “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 that really points up the importance of partnerships. Maybe you have a data set showing, overall, 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 their partnership ecosystem. 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 absolutely killing it via their partnership ecosystems. That’ll do more harm than good, because it’s not relatable. Instead, talk about a company like Gorgias, or Optilyz, who went from $1 million to $10 million, with partnerships driving the bulk of that growth (50% and 70% respectively, by the way. 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, you need to show them that you understand how it’s done, and that you don’t just shoot from the hip.

Note: When it comes to data specific to your company and size check out the "State of Partner Ops and Programs 2022" report that Partnership Leaders, Canalys, and Hubspot just released.

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, or biggest enemy. Make her the former. Keep in mind that the CEO will talk to her trusted VPs often, and may even rely on their judgment. If you have them on your side, you’re one step closer to winning her over as an ecosystem advocate.

The bigger the organization, the more this matters. In large companies, CEOs rely on sound advice from other people even more. I experienced this myself, when consultingFortune 500 companies on strategy. One of my earliest mentors told me that decisions never get made in the boardroom. By the time it ends up in the boardroom, the decisions have been made, 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. When it comes to partnerships, the VP Marketing, the VP Sales, and the VP Customer Success are usually the ones you absolutely 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 they 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 her 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 absolutely do need to keep them involved. Personally, I think monthly updates are the happy medium. You can even reuse them, and repurpose them to target those VPs we talked about earlier. 

Summary

Converting CEOs into partnership ecosystem advocates is not easy, but it is certainly possible. More than that, it’s really important 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. 

Want to learn more? Have a conversation with other leaders facing similar challenges? Then join Partnership Leaders.

Other blog posts