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The art of selling your ideas to the boss

If you struggle to secure buy-in for your proposals, then it might be time to change your strategy. There are a number of “issue-selling” tactics that will give your ideas traction and secure the resources and attention they deserve.

Research shows that, all too often, senior executives dismiss great ideas from below, write Susan Ashford and James Detert for Harvard Business Review, especially if they are not presented in the right way. The authors describe how to mount the perfect campaign and secure buy-in from the boss.

TAILOR YOUR PITCH

Tailoring your message is the most crucial element of an effective pitch. The authors explain: “It’s essential for issue sellers to familiarise themselves with their audience’s unique blend of goals, values and knowledge and to allow that insight to shape their messages.”

So before you present your idea, ask yourself where your boss stands on the issues you’re addressing. Show how your ideas meet the organisation’s needs and make your message compelling.

PACKAGE YOUR IDEA

Your boss is more likely to buy into your idea if she can see how it fits into the big picture. “A new technological development might seem like techie trivia until you explain how it supports a strategic goal,” explain Ashford and Detert.

Focusing on the business benefits of your proposal is a more powerful technique than framing your idea on moral lines. Aggressive selling or appeals to morals can have a negative effect if bosses feel you are judging their character.

Lastly, emphasising the urgency of the opportunity can be persuasive as can highlighting the consequences of not taking up the idea. But the authors warn that “threat framing” in this way can backfire, provoking “flight” instead of the desired “fight” reaction.

MANAGE EMOTIONS

For your idea to gain traction you will need to manage emotions on both sides. A modicum of passion can be beneficial and, properly channelled, attract more attention for your idea and rouse the listener into action. But too much anger and frustration will inevitably harm your case.

Recent research shows that the ability to keep emotions in check correlates with success in selling ideas. But, say the authors, you also will also need to manage the emotions of your boss.

Think about how your idea is going to make him feel and refrain from undermining his authority or judgement. Inspiring positive emotions in your boss is more likely to be successful, so try to focus on benefits and positive solutions.

TIME IT RIGHT

It’s important to pick the best time to pitch your idea. “The best sellers notice when more and more people are beginning to care about a larger topic or trend that’s related to their issue, and they position their idea to ‘catch the wave’,” say the authors.

Also pay attention to important deadlines. If your idea is relevant to an imminent development then speak up straight away, say the authors, but if there’s something more pressing in the pipeline, hold fire on raising your idea.

ENGAGE YOUR ALLIES

The most successful issue sellers form ‘coalitions’ with colleagues who can contribute energy and resources to their pitch. This tactic “generates organisational buy-in more quickly and on a larger scale.”

Ashford and Detert recommend recruiting your own allies and people your target audience trusts, as well as relevant experts who will add credibility to your cause. Try to gauge which of your colleagues will try to block you and which will be fence-sitters, and plan how you’ll convince them to support your idea.

CHOOSE YOUR APPROACH

Starting with an informal conversation to get an initial “off-the-record read” on your idea.

Once this preliminary sounding-out has been done, pitchers tend to achieve greater success with a formal presentation within a traditional business setting. Many bosses “require a certain level of convention and decorum” at this stage and “the best sellers adapt their behavior to fit that norm”.

SOLVE THE PROBLEM

Suggesting “thoughtful fixes” to the issues you raise, such as funding ideas to cover costs. However, “people are less likely to raise issues for which they haven’t identified a solution” and this can disadvantage organisations working in industries where the pace of change is particularly fast.

Also, feeling you have to have all the answers may lead to bad decision-making whereas consulting a team of experts will generate better solutions to the problems you flag up.

A good compromise is to “suggest a sensible process for discovering” the best solution to your concerns. This way you can still “follow the norm of being solution-focused while getting others constructively involved in a timely manner”.

PICK YOUR BATTLES

Some ideas are simply too hard to sell, say the authors. Any idea that seems to criticise your boss’s morality, judgement or intelligence, for instance, will be very difficult to put across successfully.

Before you start your campaign, ask yourself, “How important is this to my company? And how important is it to me?” If an issue is too important to ignore, even if you know you can’t win, then try to “sensitively pursue” your concerns, they suggest.

ADDRESS THE RIGHT AUDIENCE

Lastly, make sure you are pitching to the right people. Ask yourself if you should start with your boss or bypass her and go straight to the top with your idea.

With the first tactic you risk getting nowhere if your immediate boss or colleague doesn’t back you up or have the skills to make a good case on your behalf. But bypassing your boss is only ever the best option if you have a good enough reason for doing so.

The best compromise, say the authors, is to accompany whoever is selling on your behalf, and if that’s not an option, prepare them as best you can to sell your idea.

“Issue selling isn’t a discrete event; it’s an ongoing process that requires groundwork, pacing, and patience. When mid-level managers do it effectively, their ideas get decision makers’ attention and make a real difference.”

Source
Susan Ashford & James Detert

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