How to Present Your Great Idea to Your CEO

By: Mary K. Logan, CAE

Increase your idea’s chances of success by seeing it from the CEO perspective.

You have an idea. You present it to your CEO. What happens next?

If you're a young professional, sometimes it may feel like the answer you hear comes from a Magic 8 Ball: "hmmm," "hope," "try again later." But in fact, your CEO probably has a good reason for not pursuing a particular idea at a particular time. The better you understand the CEO's perspective, the better you'll understand the answers you get, and the better you'll do at building traction for your ideas.

The more complex the idea, the more important it is to think it through completely before taking it to the CEO. A former colleague used to present ideas to me as if he were ready to implement them. When I asked questions, he would get agitated, and then I would think he was ill prepared. Over time, I learned that what he was really doing was brainstorming.

In fact, CEOs are not usually the best people with whom to do initial brainstorming. We are overloaded and work best with completed, fully synthesized data points. (Although we can and will brainstorm in the right setting, which is hardly ever spontaneous.)

Instead, for anything more than simple ideas, brainstorm with someone else first and then provide a one- or two-page briefing for the CEO. Ultimately, the briefing should be in a form that allows the CEO to say yes or no to the recommended action, next steps, or input.

Analyze the organizational implications of implementing your idea. From the perspective of a single person or department, some ideas seem simple. Yet from the perspective of the entire organization (the CEO's lens), they may be less so. Even ideas that involve a minimal financial outlay can have big organizational implications, such as workflow, disruption, time, or other operations or programs that would need to be changed.

Think about whether the benefits of your proposal outweigh the various implications. Your CEO will be delighted that you considered your idea from an organizational perspective.

Politics can kill the very best ideas. That's life, with friends, at home, and at work. CEOs have to pick and choose the situations where they will spend their political capital to move an idea forward through possible resistance, and sometimes that capital isn't available for your idea. Learn from the experience, and save the idea for another time.

Keep trying. If your CEO doesn't have an effervescent reaction to your idea, he or she may simply be wrapped up in something else. If the budget is off, she is going to be nervous about an idea with financial implications. If he is distracted by many other thorny issues, he is likely to feel overwhelmed by any new idea.

Instead of reacting in the moment, your CEO may say, "I need to think about this." Time and space can help a maxed-out CEO reflect on why a proposal is causing anxiety. It's difficult to do that on the spot.

It's also possible your idea needs to go back to the drawing board. If that's the case, take it back and keep working on it. Most CEOs are very open to an idea coming back for consideration again. Circumstances change; moods improve; loads lighten; budgets look better. Don't give up hope.

Have patience and persistence. Ideas are crucial for innovation and progress, and they rarely fall from the sky in the form of a fully developed new product, service, or operational improvement. CEOs love to receive new ideas.

If you are resilient, the less-than-positive answers you might sometimes receive will roll off your back. Then, if you have patient persistence, some of your ideas are going to stick. You'll get points for the effort, enthusiasm, and energy. And, most importantly, you'll know you have done your best. That's what it's all about.

Mary K. Logan, CAE, is CEO of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation in Arlington, Virginia. Email: [email protected]