Jack Eisenhauer
Engaging CEOs to Solve the World’s Problems
Jack EisenhauerApril 7, 2015

Tackling today’s biggest challenges requires the public and private sectors to coordinate their intellectual and financial resources across multiple industries and disciplines. But even highly committed partners using the best collaborative models may find their progress stalled. The sheer complexity of the partnership or the inability to commit key resources without higher-level approval are common roadblocks.

That is why early senior-level buy-in is so critical to the success of most large projects. Yet that alone may not be enough. When the stakes are truly high, rapid and ongoing engagement at the CEO level is often the best—and perhaps the only—way to accelerate action and get results. The challenge:  finding the best way to engage CEOs in a sustainable way given all the other priorities they face.

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The White House gave that challenge to the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) in April 2014. With infrastructures facing more complex and dangerous risks, determine how public-private partnerships can be more productive and responsive to emerging security priorities. The Council’s draft report, Executive Collaboration for the Nation’s Strategic Infrastructure, released on March 20, 2015, provides keen insights on how to engage CEOs to help solve many of today’s tough problems.

Using a series of case studies in six critical sectors, NIAC made the following observations about how CEO conduct their business.

  1. CEOs provide thought leadership, approve strategy, set priorities, make decisions and commit resources, mobilize action, and hold accountability.
  2. CEOs organize themselves within their sectors around specific types of issues relevant to their role and responsibilities.
  3. CEOs engage with federal and sector partners when an issue may have a direct impact on their financials, their operations, and when the requirements to address it lie beyond their direct control.
  4. Sustained engagement with CEOs requires concrete results and measurable progress.
  5. Most sectors use existing organizational structures to engage CEOs to take advantage of their efficiency and “trusted” communication channels.
  6. The inherent diversity and complexity of sector structures and governance regimes must be overcome to initiate and sustain CEO engagement.

NIAC executives recommended eight actions to increase CEO collaboration to improve infrastructure security and resilience based on their findings. In looking across these recommendations, and those of previous NIAC studies, I have discerned five steps for successful CEO engagement and collaboration in public-private partnerships:

  1. Identify a Clear Value Proposition for Engagement. Each engagement must be designed to produce significant and mutual benefits to the partners. The value proposition must be identified, refined among the partners, and clearly articulated prior to engagement.
  2. Use a Partnership Structure that Protects Trusted Relationships at the CEO level. Trust among partners ensures the unrestricted flow of information and ideas without risking the release of sensitive information. Using an existing mechanism where trust is established, or creating a new mechanism with appropriate legal protections, is essential in every successful CEO partnership.
  3. Implement a Simple and Efficient Process for Executive Engagement. Complicated, hierarchal structures and processes are a buzz kill for productive CEO engagements. Using pre-established coordination and protocols help keep CEOs out of nonexecutive-level decisions. But try to cut out the handlers and the middlemen who may unintentionally stall progress and delay action. An executive facilitator or champion can often help in this regard.
  4. Provide Required Resource Support. Partnerships often falter without dedicated staff to facilitate engagements, conduct analysis, and produce swift and effective follow-up on all actions. Although work assignments may be distributed to individual partners, a core staff of skilled professionals will preserve the CEO’s time and provide continuity for the partnership.
  5. Tailor Communications and Put the Bottom Line Up Front. CEOs are inundated with information and often have limited time to sort the wheat from the chaff. Tailor the information: provide the data needed to make decisions first. Target the format: concise and scannable is best. Finally, use trusted channels. A message’s credibility often starts with the messenger.

Engaging CEOs is most important for setting priorities and allocating resources to what matters most. Nexight Group often works with complex problems where the solutions require private-sector action across multiple industries and competitive environments. In my experience, nothing accelerates a collaborative solution more than when executives declare it a business priority.

See how Nexight Group has put these recommendations into action when working with executives to address complex issues.