5 tips for selling learning to the C-suite

Posted on: December 2, 2016Updated on: June 15, 2023By: Carol Leaman, CEO

Expectations around L&D are changing. No longer just overhead, corporate L&D must become accountable for achieving results that tie directly to meeting overall corporate objectives. And that means that L&D executives must also be prepared and able to sell learning to the C-suite.


What do we mean? Rather than just saying “we have to provide more sales training,” you must be able to clearly identify the problem and justify the solution in terms that make sense to C-level executives. You must be able to prove that your learning initiative will provide a solid return on investment, break even within an acceptable timeframe, and contribute positively to the company’s bottom line.

Many of you are likely already proactively partnering with business units to discover their expectations, but that doesn’t necessarily speak to what the C-suite will be looking for, which is alignment with the organization’s goals. Whenever you need to meet and discuss requirements in a training proposal, use these five steps to ensure that it will resonate with senior executives.

1. Speak their language

While you may discuss training program results in terms of Levels 1 through 4 evaluation, or test results, these are irrelevant to the C-suite. What keeps senior executives awake at night? Improving stockholder value, improving sales and reducing costs, profit and margin, business performance, and return on investment. If you can identify how a new learning initiative can reduce costs by reducing retail shrink or OSHA recordables—or how your initiative can increase sales by 10%—then you are well on your way to creating a compelling business case. Plus, be prepared to explain the value of your learning initiative in financial language and discuss high-level strategies rather than tactics.

2. Align with the company’s high-level business goals

If you can’t connect your learning initiative to the company’s high level business goals, then it’s fair to ask why it should even be considered. To catch executive attention, you must be able to frame your proposal in terms that align with the company’s high-level business objectives, fitting at least one of these critical organization goals:

  • Profit
  • Growth
  • Revenue
  • Efficiency
  • Risk Management

Training is not an absolute requirement—business leaders see nothing as an absolute need—from their perspective training is just another business function. Learning must be aligned with, and contribute to, achievement of the organizations goals for leaders to really buy into the value.

3. Crunch the numbers


At the end of the day, senior executives want to know if your proposal makes sense financially. One of the most common measures of financial viability is Return on Investment. The break-even point is 0%, and anything above that shows a positive ROI.

For instance, the projected ROI of a learning initiative for Sales could be as follows:

ROI = ($50,000 additional sales – $25,000 cost for learning initiative)/$25,000 x 100 = 200%.

In this scenario, any sales over $25,000 creates better than break-even return on investment. The key would be to identify how long it would take to achieve at least $25,000 in sales – the shorter the period before breaking even, the more valuable your initiative becomes.

4. Be prepared for questions and objections

Any initiative worth doing needs to be vigorously defended. At a minimum, be prepared to answer the following questions and objections:

  • How does this program increase sales, decrease costs, improve efficiency or reduce risk?
  • What is the projected ROI?
  • What are the operating costs?
  • This isn’t a priority now.
  • It sounds like a disruptive initiative – we don’t have the capacity for that now.
  • We should test it first.

5. Build your business case

Finally, to convince the C-suite that your learning initiative is worth the investment, you must create a compelling business case.

  • Identify the current challenge, and the impact it is having on the business. Link the problems to overall business objectives, and identify what it is costing you in terms of lost revenue, excess costs, lost efficiency and so on.
  • Explain the benefits of your initiative, how it will solve the current challenge, and how it will contribute to achieving overall business objectives.
  • Explain how your learning initiative will be implemented, identifying budget, resources needed, and an implementation timeframe.
  • Discuss the return on investment in terms of break-even point, and go-forward financial results. Identify expected outcomes in terms of improved revenue, cost savings, efficiency improvements and so on.

What’s critical to note in the above discussion is that nowhere do we suggest that you talk about learner satisfaction, passing scores, or training hours. This is L&D speak that doesn’t show business impact. Instead, your goal is to establish how learning initiatives will contribute to the success of the business, and do so in terms that make sense for senior executives.

Carol Leaman, CEO

Carol isn’t your typical leader. She’s driving a revolutionary approach to employee knowledge, but she’s also a doors-open, come-see-me-anytime kind of executive. Carol doesn’t just talk the talk—she definitely walks the walk. You can read more from her on Training Industry Magazine, ATD, CLO and as a regular contributor for Fortune.