The Worst Thing You Can Do When Pitching an Idea to Your Boss

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Just because you pitch doesn't mean someone will catch. So how do you sell your idea to an executive with an already-set agenda?

When you have a new idea, it’s a lot like holding a hot potato—you’re fired up and eager share it. If it’s a big idea, you’ll need to get others on board to make it happen. In an attempt to win over much-needed investors, it’s tempting to pitch your idea “shark tank” style—putting your idea on full display and making a passionate pitch with the energetic on-air appeal of a QVC episode. But just because you pitch, doesn’t mean anyone will catch.

Herein lies the challenge of selling ideas inside a company: Most of the people you are selling to aren’t investors looking for the next big thing; they are operators, already invested in something else, just trying to cross the next thing off their to-do list. So how do you sell an idea inside a company, especially to people who have their own agenda?

Several years ago when I was running a global function for a large tech company, a colleague named Jane stopped by my office to ask if she could take me to lunch. Naturally, I perked up. She needed senior-management support for a new initiative, and she wanted advice on how to do this.

During our lunch, she described the criticality of the initiative she was leading and explained why it would surely fizzle out without buy in from the senior executives. She pleaded, “How do I get this initiative onto the senior executives’ agenda?” She paused, ready to receive this much-needed guidance.

After an even longer pause, I confessed, “Jane, I don’t think I can help you. I’ve never actually been successful getting the executives to buy into one of my initiatives.” She was confused and began citing a number of big initiatives I was leading with the executive team. I further confessed, “Yes, but I didn’t actually convince them to adopt my agenda. I brought ideas on how they could successfully implement their agenda.” There’s a big difference. We then discussed how to do the latter.

It’s hard to get senior management to pay attention to new ideas—not because the leaders are arrogant or overwhelmed, but because they are disciplined. It is an executive’s duty to define and defend a strategic agenda—a small set of initiatives that will keep the organization competitive and relevant. This strategic agenda becomes a repellant to new ideas or initiatives, or anything that interferes with or distracts from that agenda. Hence, Johnny-come-lately ideas (and the people who push them) tend to irritate them. It’s what makes the best leaders and entrepreneurs simultaneously inspiring and frustrating.

So if you want support for a new idea, instead of trying to add your stuff onto the the agenda of an executive, show how your ideas will further their already-set agenda. In other words, to get buy in, you have to make the tie-in. Here’s how to connect your ideas to what matters most for your stakeholders:

Understand their agenda

Few leaders actually present their agenda in neat and tidy packages, and the stated agenda is rarely the “real” agenda. This means you’ll have to figure it out yourself by using some keen observation and a bit of math. Try keeping count of the number of times they mention a particular issue—the things they talk about a lot are typically at the top of their agenda. To figure out their strategic priorities, triangulate the various strategy pronouncements and organizational announcements to find the central theme. Look for their top three priorities—because if your idea doesn’t impact one of their top three things, you’re off agenda.

By Liz Wiseman

 

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