What You Should Do When Meeting with a CEO

January 6, 2020

The key when meeting with a CEO is presenting yourself as a peer, not a subordinate.

How many times have you met with a CEO? Or, even a high-ranking executive?

Probably not too often. But, if you ever do, you should crush it – impressing your CEO is never a bad career move.

How do you do that? In his LinkedIn Learning course Selling to Executives, Mike Gamson – a high-ranking executive himself as CEO of Relativity – gave detailed instructions on how to ace a meeting with an executive. While the course is intended for salespeople, Gamson’s advice can apply to any employee meeting with any high-ranking executive.

In his course, Gamson emphasized the importance of properly preparing for the meeting, which we won’t cover here. Instead, we’ll focus on the ten things you should do when actually meeting with an executive to earn their trust and respect.

They are:

1. Start with short, relevant small talk.

You want to make some small talk with the executive to start the meeting. You should do some research into the person to find a common interest, and mention that – a good way to make the executive instinctively like you.

But don’t waste too much time with it.

“Start with the small talk on your way in,” Gamson said. “Don't take too long on the small talk. It's important. It's casual. Everything's finding their places and sitting down. It's very natural. But don't let it extend too far. You're on a time clock, and it's yours to manage.”

2. Pick a spot at the table that’s worthy of you.

A “seat at the table” isn’t just a metaphor. Your literal seat at the table matters when meeting with anyone, particularly an executive: you want one that puts you on the same level as them, as opposed to being inferior to them.

“Empower yourself with that seat choice,” Gamson said. “Make sure that you've got great eye contact with the executive and that you're in a position where you feel comfortable.”

3. Consider what you place in front of you (i.e. less is more).

When you first sit down for the meeting, think about what you put in front of you. What will the executive have in front of them?

Likely, very little. Do the same – when first sitting down, just sit, with nothing in front of you.

“Your job is to come across as a peer, not as a subordinate,” Gamson said. “So, if you put a laptop and a stack of presentations in front of you, which are your weapons to remember what to talk about, you're denigrating your position relative to her unnecessarily. Keep that stuff in your bag. If you need backup material and you need to show a presentation, you're ready. That's great. But don't start that way.”

4. Don’t apologize for being there.

There’s a tendency when meeting with an executive to apologize for being there by saying something like, “thank you for the time, I know how busy you are.”


“When you say that, what you're saying is ‘I'm not busy, my time's not valuable and yours is’," Gamson said. “Completely unnecessary. Your time is valuable. You're an expert, and she needs your expertise. She has a problem and you're going to solve it, and you're the best at what you do.”

Gamson said you can thank you for the time, but you don’t need to over-thank them or act like you are inconveniencing them.

5. Take control of the meeting.

You want to be the person who moves the meeting from small talk to getting into the meat of the meeting. And that means clearly stating what the objective of the meeting is first.

“Don't let someone else around the table take that power away from you,” Gamson said. “Whoever sets the objective of the meeting is now in control of the meeting. And it gives you the opportunity once you've set your objective to check in with her.”

6. Run the meeting as a conversation.

Rather than thinking of the meeting as a pitch to the executive to either approve what you want or to buy your product, think of it as a conversation. It’s two people, talking, figuring out the best solution moving forward.

“As an executive, when I engage with a peer, no one's ever breaking out a presentation and walking through slide one through 26,” Gamson said. “We have a conversation. We engage with each other. We're thoughtfully engaged in a series of points and counterpoints, as you do with your colleagues.”

7. Use data and insights selectively.

When presenting to an executive, there’s a tendency to over-prepare and bombard them with data. This can have the opposite effect.

“Pick one or two things that you think she might remember,” Gamson said. “Because remember, the value of the conversation is not what we put in; it's what she takes out. It's all about that pull-through. And so if you overdo it on data points, there's just no way that she's going to remember it all.”

8. Use a whiteboard, if possible.

Let’s be real: PowerPoint presentations are often boring and always make you look like the subordinate to the person you are talking too. While sometimes necessary, a good alternative is to use a whiteboard, which has the exact opposite effect.

“If you pick up a marker and you go to the whiteboard in a room with an executive, you are suddenly in charge,” Gamson said. “You are mimicking the dynamic between a teacher and a student, and you're the teacher. That's where you want to be.”

9. Manage the clock thoughtfully.

You should have a call-to-action when meeting with an executive. What you don’t want to do is spend so much time talking about the process that you bury that CTA in the last few minutes.

Instead, when there’s 10 minutes left in the conversation, get to the CTA.

“Remind them, ‘We've got about 10 minutes left, I want to make sure that I respect your time and that we meet the objectives that we set out together’," Gamson said. “Just that check-in is a great tool for bringing the conversation back in case it's drifted, because sometimes a conversation can drift naturally.”

10. Lockdown action items.

The most important part – getting the buy-in you are looking for. The key here is having a very clear ask from the executive, which makes it easy for them to say yes.

“This is where it's so important you are able to gain the buy-in on what you were there to do,” Gamson said. “Make sure that you have a very specifically delineated set of things, not too many, one or two, three if you absolutely have to, that are going to happen next, that you've got a name of a person who owns it. And, most importantly, that she's giving you her buy-in to continue to be engaged.”

The takeaway

You’ll see a theme here: an executive is just a person. And yet, often when we meet with them we get nervous and treat them differently, which undermines our position.

It’s natural to be nervous. But you can overcome that by following the 10 tips listed in this article. Doing so will earn you the respect of the executive and increase the chances of getting buy-in for your ask.

*Image from OnInnovation, Flickr

Want to learn more? Watch Mike Gamson’s free LinkedIn Learning course, Selling to Executives.

Other free LinkedIn Learning courses you might be interested in are: