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4 Ways CEOs Successfully Influence Decisions

There are several proven strategies to help CEOs influence potential partners, clients, board members or executives of companies you may be looking to acquire. Applying these suggestions will help you secure agreement from the other party ethically without resorting to more manipulative approaches.

1. Focus on ground rules on which you both agree.

A CEO was trying to buy a publishing company that viewed his overtures as hostile. He moved the discussion toward some principles they agreed were essential to the publishing business. This led the company to realize they were better off being purchased by the CEO’s company than by someone who had no clue about what matters in publishing. This deal was successful by focusing on a few mutual ground rules. Ground rules are basic principles that a person or organization lives and works by. Look for ground rules you have in common. To uncover them, observe what they do and how they act, particularly in pressure situations. Then try steering the discussion toward those points on which you both agree.

2. Reason backward to find hidden interests.

Think from the end by moving backward from outcomes to interests. See what outcomes the other side wants and ask what interests each of these outcomes serves. A British CEO had to negotiate with a labor council of 108 unions to close one plant that was sucking the company dry. When the CEO guaranteed council leaders that he would not challenge their organizing efforts at the remaining plants, they agreed to close the one plant for the sake of job stability for most of the union members. They also had elections coming up and providing job security for the majority would be looked upon favorably at election time. Knowing what the other party wants puts you in a better position to influence the decision.

3. Get up close and personal.

It’s harder to ignore the needs of someone who’s close to you than someone who lives thousands of miles away. This is because our ability to feel sympathy and empathy rely on cues in our immediate environment. The CEO of a large brokerage firm convinced his top performers to go along with an incentive program that put more emphasis on long-term results than immediate trades. To sell the change to his brokers, he conducted small in-person meetings. They saw that it was best for the future of the company, and even his top performers agreed with his decision. The point: wielding influence is most successfully done in person.

4. Be specific, not general.

You may be asking someone to give up the way they’ve been thinking for years. In this case, focus your attention on the specific area in which you seek agreement. You may be able to address the actual issue of concern without challenging broader ideas or concepts. Break your pitch down into smaller, more specific pieces. A paper products company was in a heated debate with environmental groups about pollution that occurred more than 40 years earlier. Legal fees were mounting, and no one would give an inch. While the two sides would never agree on principles, the company’s CEO defused the debate by focusing on what the company already planned to do for directly affected residents. The environmentalists could no longer point to “victims.” It’s often possible to achieve agreement with someone in a specific case, even if the two of you differ on key principles.

Mark Pastin ( is an ethics thought leader, consultant and keynote speaker. Author of Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action (Berrett-Koehler, 2013), he is the CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations.


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