Published here July 2010


Musings Index

Selling to the Top

So you are a senior project manager, perhaps even a program manager or a project director with years of project experience and you want to get into the executive suite, right? Then here's advice from one, Nicholas Read, who, for a price, will tell you what every executive wants you to know about selling to the top.

Bear in mind that Nicholas Read is no slouch. He is, after all, a former executive director of Ernst and Young's revenue growth and risk management practice and senior partner advisor at KPMG. He is a recipient of the International Business Award for Best Sales Trainer and has sold in every conceivable forum. That is, from the bazaars of Cairo to the karaoke boats of Tokyo; from the lounge rooms of Melbourne to the boardrooms of London and, according to reports, all with unbelievable success.

According to Nicholas Read, today's executives expect you to have done your homework before meeting with them. They don't want to educate you on information that can be readily obtained from the Internet or a subordinate. And they expect you to commit them to take action as a result of your call.

So, prepare yourself for those career-defining executive calls by studying your client's internal or external business drivers. In his book Selling to the C-Suite, Nicholas offers "The Eight Drivers of Executive Decision-Making"[1] for your enlightenment. Just as you do on your major projects, this helps you put in context how you can make a corporate contribution that's better, faster or easier than the approach presently being used.

But what do these drivers of executive decision-making look like? Here are his summaries of The Eight Drivers that, for your convenience, I have assembled in ascending order of obfuscation.

"1.  Operational drivers
Executives concern themselves trying to determine how to improve the internal organization and affect the financial return based on that improvement. At the most basic level, executives are concerned about having the right strategy, and taking advantage of the latest approaches, the right people, processes and technologies to execute that strategy.

One executive in our study looks to salespeople as gateways for 'expertise we don't have, coupled with experience for producing this type of capability.'

Look at how you can help executives do a better job of making, quality controlling, selling, and delivering their business plan. All will be impacted by the effectiveness (doing the right things) and efficiencies (doing things right) in the operation."

"2.  Business Partner drivers
Your customers may even now be evaluating their business partner relationships in light of changing business environments. This represents another opportunity to create value by demonstrating an understanding of their pressures and offering solutions by orchestrating relevant introductions to your company's network of people, partners and affiliates who have value to add. Solutions are sometimes about the relationships you help broker more then the product or service you sell."

"3.  Competitor drivers
While executives immerse themselves in their own company affairs, the fact that you sell to many companies places you in a unique position to have something those executives always look for: insight into marketplace trends. So share your ideas and help them see beyond their silo walls to how other companies are solving the same competitor drivers they face. One caveat: don't disclose specific competitor names - these may also be your customers, and their activities with you should remain confidential if you don't want to lose credibility. Instead, interpret the trends you see across companies, and help your customers see the future."

"4.  Regulatory drivers
In response to corporate scandals that have plagued the headlines in the past decade, governments, industry regulators and shareholders are demanding greater accountability and transparency from corporations. Companies must operate under new regulations designed to maintain stability in financial markets that are already under pressure, and to protect shareholder interests by restoring investor confidence. The regulatory drivers that keep executives awake at night include financial accounting compliance, workplace safety, labor laws, equal opportunity, environmental emissions and carbon credits, anti-money laundering and international tax.

If you have a solution that helps executives stay compliant with regulations and out of jail, and if you can demonstrate how it will work in the context of their business today, you'll unlock the C-suite every time."

"5.  Globalization drivers
Globalization impacts executives in a variety of ways. As they face competition from cheaper labor and production abroad, they risk losing market share. Consequently to remain competitive they must drive cost from their domestic infrastructure, or outsource production and services to low-cost offshore providers. Either course of action creates risk as well as opportunity. How do they find the right production and distribution partners? How do they drive risk out of an extended supply chain and hedge for multiple currencies? How do they recruit and keep the right people? If globalization means closing domestic factories, how will they manage labor laws, public relations and finances? Do they have products that appeal to multiple markets?

Helping executives anticipate and navigate these issues is a tremendously valuable contribution, and to do so you need to have studied the customer's situation and weighed their options as judiciously as though you were on their Board - it's the value they're looking for."

"6.  Customer drivers
Maintaining and growing their existing customer base, creating and enhancing loyalty, and delivering value are of prime importance to most executives. But how do you target the right customers? How do you anticipate their needs? How do you develop new products that will be ready when the market starts to demand them? As a salesperson, if you can demonstrate how your product or service can add value in these areas you will be seen as a resource that can help create a competitive advantage, and executives will want to talk to you if they recognize they have a problem in this area."

"7.  Supplier drivers
If you are an executive on the buying side of the supply chain, your concern is about reliability of supply, quality, economies of scale, inventory turnover, shrinkage through loss or theft, warehousing and distribution technologies, demand forecasting and many of the same issues that trouble executives on the selling side of the supply chain. There's very much a level of interdependence between the buyer and seller, so approaches to real-time data sharing, shared infrastructure and shared risk management remain compelling to discuss, especially when a salesperson can cogently present how any of their solutions in these areas do the job faster, better or with less risk than how the executive does it today."

And last but certainly not least:

"8.  Financial drivers
Every executive is under financial pressure to perform. At the most basic level, executives must do one of two things to produce a profit: increase revenue or reduce costs. For salespeople to build business value for an executive pressured by financial drivers, they must ultimately help them move the needle on profit or cost, and to do so in a way that's consistent with how their industry measures success.

For example, in the Airline industry, you'll get on the executive's radar if you are articulate about the drivers that are specific to airlines such as load factor, a variable planning horizon, high seasonality, fierce competition, excessive government intervention, high fixed costs and low margins (while the airline industry generates billions of dollars it has a cumulative profit margin of less than 1 percent).

When selling to a Bank, different drivers accumulate interest: organic growth, maintaining customer loyalty, increasing customer transactions, risk management, reducing fraud and bad debts, consolidating and upgrading infrastructure, shifting from bricks (branches) to clicks (online banking), industry reform and regulation, merchant alliances and so on."

Okay, got that? You don't understand it? Of course not - you are a project manager, not a master of ceremonial and complicated unintelligible jargon designed to impress and confuse the uninitiated, and hence give the impression of having possession of supernatural business powers.

It's called mumbo jumbo.

1. Nicholas Read is president of consulting firm SalesLabs ( and co-author of Selling to the C-Suite (McGraw Hill, 2010). For more information, please visit
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