How to impress a CEO

Whether you are trying to make your mark or win a prestigious appointment, it pays to impress the CEO. Stephanie Sparrow reports.

There has never been a more challenging time for senior HR professionals. As they work through the ongoing threat of general economic meltdown, they have to prove that they are a strategic business partner and the equal of every other department. Above all, they have to show that they can be the CEO’s trusted adviser and guide.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has been blunt about the importance of establishing a good relationship with the CEO. Its Next Generation HR research project advises that professionals have to “actively educate their CEOs and other senior leaders to help them broaden their expectations of the role HR could play”.

Articulate the business issue








How to impress a CEO


Where: In your existing organisation.
How: By translating business issues into people issues.

Where: In job applications.
How: With examples of how you built growth or managed change and what this meant to profitability and service.

Where: In an interview.
How: By talking business and how HR can add value.


For senior HR people who are trying to make their mark within an organisation, it is essential to demonstrate that they really understand their own business and how it makes money, says Sue Filmer, principal consultant with responsibility for talent management, Mercer.

The way to show this is by translating HR actions into CEO language, in other words “articulate the business issue”, says Filmer. For example, if a company is considering the way that it is responding to its customers, HR needs to be ready with a new approach to its call centres and performance management. HR also needs to show an understanding of competitors and how they are delivering to the customer.

Talent management, organisational development and transformation offer the opportunity for HR to shine. “Policy doesn’t keep CEOs awake at night,” says Richard Baker, director at Robert Half UK, “but you need to interpret it for them and translate the strategy information into top-line objectives. So, for example, you might look at your talent acquisition model, how you keep high potentials and the impact this has.”

Needs of the organisation

The senior HR professional is expected to weigh up the needs of finance, sales and production in order to offer the CEO a balanced view of how the HR department is meeting the challenge. “Staff turnover, or the amount of money spent on training, depends on the needs of the organisation,” says Baker.

Focused efforts are needed to convey these achievements on a CV. Don’t construct a CV that only carries operational detail or jargon, says Filmer, adding that it should show an understanding of the business issues addressed. “Pitch your CV to show where you have been building growth or helping with business transformation,” she says.

Metrics are now regarded as essential in proving the worth of HR (Personnel Today Awards judging panel member Tracey Robbins recognised a “sound position of the HR function with strong metrics” in David Cooper, the winner of the 2011 HR Director of the Year Award) and Baker says that it is effective to put metrics around tasks on your CV, to show the impact of reducing the external spend on recruitment or putting a high-performance measurement scheme in place.

Interview preparation

If you secure a job interview, take a sophisticated approach to interview preparation – particularly if you are going to meet the CEO.

“It’s about preparing for the job specification and audience,” says Barney Ely, director at Hays HR. It is also about being prepared for both a competency-based interview or a less structured meeting, which, if the CEO is sitting in or conducting, will take the form of a business discussion.

Contributing to a credible business discussion also means researching the CEO’s background, achievements and traits, and understanding the business of the recruiting organisation. At the same time, applicants need to show how they have made a difference and how they have increased profitability and service. “Don’t be flaky on detail,” says Ely. “Say what it meant to the business and show good self-awareness about how it can be improved.”

Outside the formal application process, HR professionals can find that business networking is a useful way to catch the CEO’s eye. Remember that senior people will often research you after meeting at a conference or federation so make sure that your social networking profile is one of which you can be proud. “Endorsements and recommendations are important,” says Ely.