You have a great idea? How to get executive buy-in.

One reason bottom-up proposals fail is because idea champions don’t engage their executives in the right way. Whether you are promoting new methods, practices, tools, or cultural changes, getting your exec team on board can make all the difference.

Having influenced executives for many years, I’ve made my share of mistakes and had some successes. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

  1. Talk business, not technology. Executives don’t care about the latest tech or tool. What they care about are business results. You need to talk about your great idea in those terms. ROI, employee engagement, speed to market, higher quality, customer service are typical examples of what execs care about. If you cannot explain how your idea addresses these topics, you’ll be tuned out.
  2. Executives have problems to solve. Discover what those are. If your idea does not solve an important problem and do it with positive ROI, you are solving the wrong problem.
  3. Formal presentations should take a backseat to a cup of coffee and a chat. Presentations, unless you are a brilliant speaker, are boring. The best successes I have had with executives occurred when we sat at a table, chatted, drew on napkins or stood shoulder to shoulder at a white board.
  4. Do some research on your executives. Find the one who is most likely to share your pain. Talk to your colleagues, read the executive profiles, look into their history and build a persona that gives you enough information to understand who they are, what they believe in, how they like to work, and what their goals are.
  5. Execs are smart. The ones I have met over the years have excellent baloney radars. If you are not authentic, open, honest, and true, you’ll last about 30 seconds.
  6. Know your stuff. This is pretty obvious, but allow me to expand. If you manage to get an exec’s attention with your idea, you will get dozens of questions, usually in rapid succession, and these are guaranteed to disrupt the flow of your message. Expect it, and prepare accordingly. Knowing your stuff means you have considered multiple scenarios and possibilities and can talk to each one intelligently.
  7. If you don’t know something, say so. It may kill your conversation, but it’s better than making things up as you go. You get one shot at being credible. Baloney radar is very effective.
  8. Choose your key executive wisely. You will rarely get an audience with everybody at once. And in my experience, getting all your executives in a room will be a waste of time, at least early on. You need a supporter; someone on the executive team that believes in what you are proposing, and believes in you. Convince one executive, then she/he can help you by providing air cover when you meet with others. They can also open the door to other executives that don’t know who you are.
  9. Avoid being sales-pitchy. Avoid buzz words. Avoid selling silver-bullets. We all know that getting a benefit out of any idea is hard work. Be straight about it.
  10. Human beings like to be right. Ask anyone how often they are right and most will answer that they are above average. Telling anyone they are wrong is a recipe for being shown the door. If you hear something that sounds “wrong”, try to understand why they hold a view that is different from yours. There is always an underlying assumption behind it. Get to the assumption, and then you’ll discover how to influence the change in the assumption.
  11. Assume you will be misunderstood. We all talk and listen with our own set of filters–our own private context. Just being aware of this, and listening for misunderstanding lets you adapt your message delivery.

There are lots of other things, but I wanted to focus on that initial conversation with your exec. This is where it all starts. If you get that one exec on board, you have the proverbial foot in the door.


6 thoughts on “You have a great idea? How to get executive buy-in.

  1. It’s funny/sad that a post like yours is necessary year after year after year. Anyone who tries to change an organization needs to understand these points. I’ve lost count of the articles and talks I’ve seen that deal with the importance of selling change to an executive sponsor and how to do it. (And without an active executive sponsor, your change project is probably doomed.) You’ve done a very nice job of covering the material in your post.

    W.r.t. #4, at BNR/Nortel I found it useful to know what their Myers-Briggs rating was. If you’re dealing with someone who is a big-picture strategic thinker, presenting details – even ones like ROI – can drive them to distraction. If you’re dealing with a details guy, you’d better have lots of facts and figures.


    • Thanks, Barb. Agree with you on the Myers-Briggs and also on the necessity of year over year repetition of posts like this one. It’s nothing new, but worth reminding ourselves. In fairness, I only learned how to do this when I started working directly with executives about 10 years ago. I still have a lot to learn, and I still get it wrong sometimes. But better than average. 😉

      Really appreciate your comments, Barb! Thanks again!

  2. Great post! It is always worth repeating. I go back and review my exec engagement notes quite regulary. Another tip I’ve learned: while doing the research on the exec, try to find out who their most trusted report(s) is/are. You’ll need to sell those folks as well and sometimes in advance.

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