Getting the ear of the CEO to pivot

Menno van Dijk 1
December 12th, 2016
Article by: Menno van Dijk, Valeria Mecozzi
Getting the ear of the CEO to pivot

Most scale-ups do not get things right the first time. The Founder and CEO sets upon a direction into the unknown, onto a path riddled with false assumptions. As she feels the need to always project full confidence, especially in the face of all kinds of resistance and inertia, she might be blind to the real issues and the need to change.


It is within the middle ranks that a leader must feel empowered to identify and promote the need for pivoting. People in this layer gather valuable intelligence from the direct contact with customers, suppliers, and colleagues; they can often see when the market is ripe for a certain offering, for instance, or spot signs that the current course of action won't work.  The same holds for supervisory board members, coaches and experts.


But for many reasons, ranging from a fear of negative consequences to compliance with the Founders/CEO, they may not voice their ideas and concerns. Even worse is that when they do, they often struggle to persuade the people at the helm.

A leader must feel empowered to identify and promote the need for pivoting. Click To Tweet

Selling the need to pivot is a real skill and scale-up CEOs should ensure the people around them master it.  There are several tactics associated with success:

  • Get the timing right by, say, attending to the Founder’s/CEO’s preoccupations or by aligning with larger trends or key events. Realize that most Founders/CEOs are in information overload and consciously ignore certain signals as exemplary of what they want to fight against (versus listen to).
  • Tailor your “pivot pitch” to the goals, values, and knowledge of Founder/CEO. For instance, most founding CEOs would be less concerned about risking the venture than risk never achieving their long-held ambition.
  • Manage emotions (your own and the CEO’s). The Founder/CEO is deeply vested in the venture. Everything is personal.  As a result, every issue raised will feel like a personal attack. So take him to lunch, or find any opportunity for a long conversation, and first articulate your commitment. Only then share the new insights.  Defuse the personal side. Adhere to organizational norms, such as how she prefers to receive information (is it story? Data?).  Do not involve others.  It will feel like you are trying to surround the CEO and play politics.  This will backfire.
  • Do not jump to conclusions, solutions or action. The Founder/CEO will turn the rudder if she sees danger. Perhaps it is enough to just point to the tip of the iceberg, not already to raise full alarm and jump in the nearest lifeboat.

Issue selling is an ongoing process that requires groundwork and patience. Midlevel managers who do it effectively get decision makers’ attention and make a real difference in their organizations.

Join the THNK Creative Leadership Program to learn how to sell the need to pivot to a scale-up CEO as well as navigate that pivot. Visit the program page or contact us at