Think Like a CEO

Why would you want to think like a Chief Executive Officer, unless you also are one? Simple. In my experience, the people who learn to think like a CEO are able to earn a good living. Those who don’t, can’t.

If you just want to punch a clock, put in your time and just hang onto your job barely earning a living, you can skip this article.  But if you want the financial and personal rewards that come from delivering more value, here’s how to do it. The skill of thinking like a CEO is something anyone can learn, it’s a step by step process.

Thinking like a CEO means paying attention to detail and then applying what was learned from that. A CEO-thinking salesperson learns in detail the customer’s situation – needs and opportunities – and then applies what she or he learned. Think about the big picture, understanding how your product or service helps improve efficiency and save money, as though it’s your own money you’re saving. You’re not just thinking like the CEO of the company you work for, you’re thinking like the CEO of your customers’ companies too.

If you can think of solutions to bigger problems for your customers, you’ll move past the “order-taker” situation in which you just get small sales and have to fight for every one of them. You’ll move up to the Big Leagues in which you get to wrestle with finding solutions to your customers’ problems, so you become an important part of their team. It’s more rewarding personally and financially.

I’ve known people from all fields who are great at this. One was a dispatcher for a trucking company who was actually more of a “phone-based salesperson,” always thinking of innovative solutions to customer problems, or thinking of ways to save them money, or ways to get their loads delivered faster.

In my own career, once while making a call on a large steel company during the late 1980s, I was asked if I knew of a warehouse where I could store 25 million pounds of steel. When I asked why – and who wouldn’t? – I was told that the President of the US (George H.W. Bush at the time) had recently signed an import tariff that would restrict the flow of steel into the United States. The Chinese were shipping as much steel as they could into the country before the tariff took effect.

This bit of news opened up my eyes to three big opportunities. One, I needed to increase the number of flatbed trailers in the area near the port in Connecticut where the goods would be shipped in. Two, there would be opportunities to provide storage space.

But the third opportunity was the biggest, and it came from my question to the plant manager, “Where will you get your steel after the tariff takes effect?”

Now this is the kind of situation where I really enjoy my work, and even more when pencil and paper are handy. The manager started to list all the steel plants in the US that would increase production. I needed that information so I could be sure to have equipment available in those areas. I also needed to know who would be in charge of ordering that steel, and would need to have the product transported.

It was like Christmas in July. There was huge demand for steel transportation from plants that had been on reduced production and suddenly there was demand for their product.

It got even more Christmas-like after I called my stockbroker to ask what would happen to the share price of steel companies – and it was like a Manny Ramerez home run as those share prices doubled and even tripled.

It all came from understanding the details – the tariff and its effect on production at US steel plants – to see how this would play out in terms of demand for steel-carrying equipment (and stock prices).

Bridge-building Steps:

  1. Take the time to understand your customer’s business. Part of that comes from “secondary” research like reading trade magazines and industry-related websites, and setting your Internet browser so you’ll receive news about the company and industry. Keep learning about the newest business trends that are affecting your customers.


  1. Do “primary” research too – that means asking your customer the right questions and being observant when you call on a customer. If they recognize that you want to learn so that you can meet their needs better and faster, they’ll be only too glad to help you. People love to talk about their work and their business, so give them opportunity to do so over breakfast, lunch, dinner or just meeting in their office.


  1. Apply what you learn. Always seek out ways to help your customers increase profits or avoid a loss. Get beyond being only an “order-taker” and transform yourself into a truly valued partner. That way, you’ll be able to hang on to that business for years to come.


Steve Gareau is the author of “Building Your Bridge to Sales Success” (Bridge Series Books) and a consultant, speaker, and business mentor with more than 40 years of entrepreneurial and small business experience. Contact him at

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