I've met a lot of CEOs in my time. Many, especially those who head very large companies, suffer from "CEO disease," a condition where one's sphincter enlarges until it covers the entire body, causing an itch only relieved by underling osculation.

Contrary to what you might think, if you want to sell to this type of CEO, it's a big mistake to follow suit and grovel like the people who work for him (and it usually is a him rather than a her.)  Instead, you MUST behave as if you believe that you are the CEO's equal.

That can be difficult, though, if you're not prepared for the ego-inflating mind-games that such CEOs tend to play when they're holding court with outsiders. However, as with much in business and in life, forewarned is forearmed.

To illustrate this point, here's a story told to me by a business colleague. I'm not 100% certain that it's true (and in fact the CEO in question has denied it ever happened), but I trust the guy who told me the story and the facts fit well with what I know about this CEO.

About ten years ago, my colleague was recruiting investors for a real estate investment project. As part of this campaign, he landed a meeting with a well-known CEO who, because I can't verify the story 100%, I'll call "Mr. Grump."

Mr. Grump had his headquarters in a large eponymous building in New York City that had been featured in a national television program. My friend, though business-savvy, found it impossible not to be awed by the fact that he in such palatial surrounding.

Rather than meeting immediately with the famous CEO, however, my colleague was taken to a conference room to discuss the final terms with some highly-friendly, very personable staffers. My colleague was told that the CEO would arrive in a few minutes.

At that point, a staffer took my colleague aside and said: "You need to understand that our CEO never shakes hands with anybody. So don't be offended if he doesn't offer his hand, and don't offer your hand when he comes in the room."

While my friend digested this tidbit, the staffer continued: "Our CEO is a very busy man and prefers to make decisions quickly. So if the meeting lasts less than five minutes, please don't take it amiss, because that's normal for him."

Finally, "Mr. Grump" makes his appearance. He walks right over to my colleague and warmly shakes his hand. Then "Mr. Grump" proceeds to spend 40 minutes with my colleague, discussing the business and then, at last, ironing out the final terms.

Those terms were, as you probably guessed, less advantageous than my colleague had hoped. Even so, when he told me this story, he kept talking about how impressed he'd been. "He even shook my hand!" he gushed.

I didn't say anything at the time (why rain on his parade?) but my colleague had absolutely no idea that he had been played. Here are the specific head-games that "Mr. Grump" played on him:

  1. The Overly-Impressive Office. CEOs have impressive offices because they want you to be awed. If you are, you're being just as gullible as a teenage girl who's impressed because a guy has a neat car.
  2. The "He's So Busy" Routine. CEOs sometimes make you wait to see them, even if you have an appointment, in order to make you feel that the CEO's time is far more important than your time.
  3. The Underling Gauntlet. CEOs often have highly-personable underlings to make you feel like an underling. If you're not careful, you end up feeling "socially" bonded to the underlings and thus in a subservient position while meeting the CEO.
  4. The Unexpected Handshake. The first three games are pretty common in CEO land. This one is new to me, so I guess it's something that "Mr. Grump" thought up himself. Turning a common business courtesy into a negotiation advantage... brilliant!
  5. The Meeting Extension. CEOs often set low expectations of the amount of time they'll be spending, so that people feel complimented if they spend more than that amount. The CEO probably had an hour blocked off anyway.

What should my colleague have done? In my experience, the way you deal with game-playing bigwigs is to 1) be aware of what they're doing, 2) refuse to be impressed by it, and 3) treat them as equals.

And why not? Consider: YOU have something the CEO needs (your offering) and the CEO has something you want (money). So the two of you are equally important. By refusing to kowtow, you subtly let the CEO know that you won't be suckered into a bad deal.

Published on: Feb 23, 2018
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