How to Talk to Your CEO About Category Design

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I often hear people talk about category design as a “marketing strategy.” It’s easy to see why. Marketing often spearheads category design. And it affects that department as much as any other. But category design is actually a whole-company exercise. As such, it’s a strategy that only your CEO can decide to pursue.

If you’re interested in category design and want to explore this strategy with your team, you need to know how talk to your CEO about it. This post will help you do that well.

First, I should to explain why it’s so necessary for your CEO to be at the center of your category design efforts.

Why your CEO needs to lead category design

Category design is company-level decision

Category design isn’t a side project, or an initiative you might take on for a quarter or two. It’s a long-term strategy that will have ramifications for every area of your company.

With category design, you’re trying to do three things: (1) identify a new problem, (2) show the world why a new category is needed to address this problem; and (3) establish your company as the leader of this category.

Such a decision affects the plans of every department. It also requires them to focus on this goal for a long time. As such, it’s a choice that only the CEO can make. If category design is pursued in the absence of the CEO’s complete buy-in, then it’s doomed to fall short.

Category design requires the support of every department

Category design means marshaling the forces of every department. Product, marketing, engineering, design, finance, sales, support, customer success, and more have to take part.

Do you think your CMO will be able to hold these departments accountable? Your head of product? The CTO? If a department head leads category design without the backing of the CEO, then it will be a distracting side-project. Having one department involved is like trying to bake cake with one ingredient. For more, this post will show you why Gong started their category design process with their CEO.

When I asked my own CEO at BombBomb, Conor McCluskey, why he felt CEOs should back category design, he reminded about “shiny penny syndrome”. It’s when teams get distracted by something new and excited, and fall off track. Only the CEO can keep every department focused, and they need to have the discipline to say “no” to things that will derail your efforts.

Follow these steps when discussing category design with your CEO

If you’re ready to approach your CEO about category design, then there’s one thing you need to understand first. Your job is not to “convince” your CEO to pursue category design.

The last thing you want is for your CEO to support category design with faulty assumptions or unrealistic expectations. If that’s your approach, you probably won’t be around for long. Any discussion has to involve working alongside your CEO to help her discover the right strategy for your company. Category design isn’t for everyone and it should be approached with caution.

Understand your CEO’s perspective and motivations

Your CEO probably gets more suggestions, ideas, and recommendations for books they “have” to read then she can ever sort through. Understand that your idea to explore category design is probably just one of many other things your CEO will hear this month.

That’s why you have to start by understanding how your CEO thinks. Ask questions like, “What does success look like for this business?”, “Where do you want the business to be in 5 years?”, “How likely are we to get there?”, and “Where do you see holes in our strategy?” Holding a dialogue like this shows that you’re interested in supporting what the CEO wants, not your own agenda.

If you want to take things a step further, have him read a book called Play Bigger. It’s the first book written on category design, and it lays out the strategy better than anything else. Present the book as a potential answer to some of the challenges he brought up in your discussions. Afterwards, ask if he thinks becoming a “category king” is something worth pursuing. You might hear “no”, and if so, consider that a good thing. You just saved yourself from the effort of pursuing a strategy that was never going to happen.

These discussions will also give you useful information about how the CEO thinks. Use this to your advantage. Again, not to “convince” your CEO to pursue category design. But to frame your conversation in a way your CEO can relate to. For example, Conor told me early on that he had an aspiration to build a $5B company. I didn’t know that. But by discussing that specific goal, we were able to look at category design as a potential “how” for making that happen.

Involve your leadership team in the discussion

Even though category design has to be decided on by your CEO, she won’t make this decision alone. Any good leader will ask for feedback from her team. This is why you need to start conversations with your leadership team in parallel with those you’re having with your CEO.

Two great outcomes can come from talking with your leadership.

The first is that you’ll be much better informed when you hold conversations with your CEO about category design. Category design is going to present challenges to each department. Perhaps they don’t have the resources. Maybe they are stuck in an old way of thinking and need to break free. Whatever they are, you’ll be able to help the CEO think through solutions. Positive outcomes will present themselves too. Category design might be just the thing a department needs tackle a tough problem. When your CEO hears about an opportunity for a solution from you and your department head, it’s a lot easier for her to get behind it.

The second thing that happens is that you’ll be making the CEO’s job much easier. Put yourself in his shoes for a minute. Suppose he’s convinced that category design is the right way to go, but none of his departments heads have had a chance to think about. He has a ton of work ahead of him. However, you can save him from that slog. If you have these conversations with leadership while you’re also talking to your CEO, he won’t have to go in cold. Instead of having to explain category design and convince leadership that it’s worth pursuing, all that’s left is for him to confirm the decision.

Finally, remember that your CEO will need time to work through this decision. Category design isn’t something you can try out for a few months and then retreat from. It’s a major company initiative that will demand much of your resources. It’s not a decision that should be taken lightly, and be sure to respect that.

Your CEO is ready for category design. Now what?

Once your CEO has decided that they are “all in” on category design, celebrate! Your company is about to embark on an exciting, challenging, and game-changing journey to build and dominate a new market. But remember that the work is just beginning. It will take consistent effort over a long time to keep your team on track. Whatever your role and whatever your title, if you can support your CEO in making that happen, you’ll add tremendous value to your team.

For more thoughts on pitching category design to your CEO, check out this interview I did with Conor McCluskey, our CEO at BombBomb. You can also find the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Play.

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John Rougeux is VP Marketing Strategy at BombBomb. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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John Rougeux is VP Marketing Strategy at BombBomb. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

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