How to Be Interesting (and Useful) to C-Level Executives

More and more, there is an increasing demand that salespeople, account managers, and operations people developing the skills to engage with senior level executives in their client and dream client companies. The level of value we create as a sales organization is limited by our ability—or inability—to have the necessary dialogue that allows us to create higher levels of value.

It isn’t easy to develop the skills necessary to engage in a strategic dialogue with C-level executives. But there are some things that you can do to make it a lot easier—and to enjoy much greater success when you do.

Know How You Create Value

C-Level executives are consistently short on one thing: time. They are protective of their time because they have so little of it when you compare it to the demands of their organization and its stakeholders or against the results that they need to produce.

This means you have a very limited time get your C-Level executives attention. You are expected to know exactly how you create value for companies like theirs, and you are expected to have some understanding of what you can do for them—even before you speak with them. This isn’t always about research; it’s about knowing who you are, what you do, and how you make a difference.

When you call on high-level executives, you don’t have the same time to build rapport as you might if you were calling on someone lower in an organization. Someone lower in the organization may need more time for rapport building because you are going to work closely with them should they choose to move forward with you.

You also don’t have time to fish around for ideas that might indicate some dissatisfaction. That might work where and when you have time, but you don’t have that luxury here. You have to know how and what you can do to make a difference. This is why I believe it is a mistake to believe that you should always enter an organization at the top (this is, of course, a generalization and all generalizations are lies).

You must able to ask questions that demonstrate you know where the issues are, and that you know how to increase revenue, increase profitability, and reduce costs (all dissatisfaction ultimately rolls up into one of these categories).

Know how you create value and get to the point.

Possess the Business Acumen to See Through Their Eyes

To sell and engage an organization at this level, you have to possess the business acumen necessary to see the business through your c-level executive’s eyes.

You may not ever be the subject matter expert that your c-level executive is when it comes to their business, but you better be able to quickly comprehend the big moving pieces that you touch. You have to understand what drives their business so you can relate what you do to pull those levers.

You don’t have to have a perfect understanding, but you better know how they look at their business. There are lots of c-level executives that will be willing to give you an education (or the rest of an education), but you have to have a basic fundamental understanding of how business works so you can keep up; this means you need business acumen.

Your c-level executive is interested in talking about business. You have to be able to keep up.

Prove You Will Own the Outcome

C-level executives work for all kinds of shareholders. They have their management team to serve. They have their employees to serve. They have clients to serve. They have a board of directors to serve. The last thing in the world that they need is another dependent.

To get a c-level executive’s attention and be useful to them, you have to prove that you are going to own the outcome. This is what they want from you, and this is what they are willing to pay you for doing.

To be interesting and useful to a c-level executive, you are going to have to demonstrate that you are going to own the outcome that you sell. They aren’t hiring a salesperson to work for them; they are hiring a manager that will own the result and do what is necessary to ensure that it is achieved.

Explain that you are going to own the outcome, and that you will be there to see the objective achieved.

Own the Next Steps

What you want from a c-level executive is permission to proceed. You own the next step. All you need from them is their blessing to move forward. If they have to do work for you to move forward, it isn’t going to get done and they won’t need you. Instead, you are going to end up with unanswered voicemails, unanswered emails, and a serious sense of disappointment.

If you need information, ask your c-level executive whom you should work with to get it. Then you go get the information. If you need access to people, ask the c-level executive to forward an email that you write and send to the parties you need to engage with.

You aren’t interesting and useful as a dependent. You are useful and interesting as someone who is going to get things done while they move on to other priorities.

You have to take initiative. You do the work. You own the next step.


What do you believe c-level executives (or high level executives) expect from you as a salesperson?

What do they expect from you in the way of knowledge about how you can help their business?

What do they expect you to know and understand about business more generally?

What are they looking for in a partner?

Why do you have to own the next steps?

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  • Thom Holland

    Great post Anthony. I can tell you that all of these are right on point.

    I continually find myself dealing with the same circle salespeople for the simple reason that they are great at helping us make money; even if that means not making the sell. Often times, these particular individuals create value by simply connecting me with someone else who can help me solve a challenge. For that simple reason alone, I check back with them time and time again.Thanks for the great read.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and for validating that the thinking,  Thom. 

  • Charles H. Green

    It’s really interesting that you phrase the question this way, and very useful.  Too often we think of “how can I grab the CXO’s attention,” as if it were some interventionist act of will on our part that seizes them away from competing alternatives.

    Instead, you tee it up as: hey, what would they actually find interesting?  And then to focus on meeting that natural need.

    It can sound simple, because supposedly we do that all the time in presenting features and benefits; but we don’t do it all the time in terms of buyer psychology, and it really does offer up a different perspective. 


    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      It’s only my personal experience, but when you ask for a high-level executive’s time, they believe you are supposed to show up with an agenda and have some idea of what you want and what you can do for them. 

      They need things done, and they need partners they can trust to do those things. If you know what you do and how it benefits them, you have a good starting point. 


  • Andrea P. Howe

    Thom makes a great point — the key is to deliver value any way you can, even if that means making connections, versus selling work, or (gasp) referring the work elsewhere. Too often we get too narrowly focused on ourselves and our own organizations, which steers our focus away from making a difference for others. Those who are effective in the C-suite are sounding boards, first and foremost, and a salespeople last.

    I also think seeing through their eyes goes beyond business acumen. While a C-level exec will probably never be heard saying, “He was empathetic with me; that’s why I hired him,” the ability to convey that you really understand and appreciate his world–the entirety of it–distinguishes a trusted advisor from a savvy businessperson.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      I love your last point, Andrea. I wouldn’t have mentioned empathy (and didn’t), but I think it’s important. You have to feel what they feel, and that can inform how you work for and with them. 

  • Matthew Miller

    Very useful. Thank you. Don’t forget about following up with the executive in regards to the outcome obtained. This step is often forgotten and helps build credibility as a partner.