A quick guide to getting executive buy-in

By Kate Neilson

3 July, 2020



So you’ve got an idea to improve your business. How do you actually get it over the line?

Getting a new business initiative approved can feel like pulling teeth. You often hit a wall at budget restraints, unrelenting leadership or a workplace culture averse to change.


This can be a Catch-22 scenario in the current economic environment. Large business changes are often necessary for survival, yet executives are also more likely to tighten the purse strings. To overcome this, HR professionals have to exhibit a combination of emotional intelligence, persuasion and knowledge of a business’s needs and pain points.


Below, HRM delves into some research about how to get executive buy-in as well as some tips from certified HR professionals who’ve had success getting ambitious projects approved.


Be (emotionally) intelligent


Many people will tell you a solid business case is what you need to secure executive buy-in. While this is certainly a key factor, it’s a minimum requirement at best.


A good pitcher assumes they’ll have to convince a person to do something they wouldn’t have wanted to do at the start of the conversation. Even if this isn’t the case, it’s best to be prepared for such a scenario.


Emotional intelligence is key. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, professors Susan J. Ashford and James R. Detert refer to an example of a manager who wanted to implement a safer and cheaper piece of technology to his boss. But the technology he wanted to replace had been hand selected by his boss.


So rather than pointing out all that was wrong with it, the manager relied on comparisons of user reviews for both pieces of technology and brought in an expert he knew his boss respected to sing the new technology’s praises. This approach worked. There are often egos involved in situations like this. Knowing how to manage them is critical.


Once you’ve convinced them to jump on board with your idea, the next step is to cement their commitment.


In an article for Inc., David Van Rooy, vice president of talent development at Vail Resorts, said: “If you can get someone to verbally – or better yet, publicly – commit to something, they are more likely to follow through with it.


“If you leave a meeting without agreeing to a course of action, less is likely to happen than if each person states their commitments out loud…. people have an innate pull to remain aligned with what they have said or agreed to previously.”


A research-backed approach


In the HBR article, Ashford and Detert provide a very detailed breakdown about how to gain executive buy-in, based on their own research. In it, they point to separate research which suggests those pitching new initiatives are often starting a few steps behind as leaders are often quick to dismiss ideas if they can’t directly connect it with organisational performance.


“Their task is easier if certain contextual factors are in place,” they write. “For instance, a track record of strong individual contributions, which enhances credibility, and a culture in which it’s safe to speak up.”


Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. More often than not, those trying to bring about change have to rely on the art of persuasion rather than simple logic.


In their own research, Ashford and Detert identified the tactics of a successful “issue seller” (their name for a person seeking buy-in).


“Issue sellers who accomplish their goals, we found, look for the best ways, venues, and times to voice their ideas and concerns – using rhetorical skill, political sensitivity, and interpersonal connections to move the right leaders to action.”


They break this down into seven key tactics:

  1. Tailoring your pitch – this was the key success factor. They say it’s critical to become familiar with your executive’s “unique blend of goals, values and knowledge” and use these insights to customise your pitch according to who you’re speaking with.

  2. Strategically frame the issue – this is the stage most HR professionals would be familiar with: building a business case. Not surprisingly, the researchers found this was more effective than moral framing.

  3. Manage your emotions – passion, they said, was proven to help in achieving buy-in, but passion can easily spill into anger and this inevitably works against issue sellers. Emotional regulation is key.

  4. Choose your timing wisely – pitch ideas when there’s a groundswell from employees, when a business’ priorities are shifting (we’re in such a time right now) or when a new leader is at the helm. (Read HRM‘s case study of an HR professional who did exactly this when restructuring employees at a school).

  5. Don’t do it alone – the researchers found having a group of people involved in seeking buy-in made it happen a lot faster, as each individual brought their own experience/relationships/social pull.

  6. Follow procedure – understanding how various executives like to receive information. Do they prefer formal presentations over a casual coffee catch-up, for example? Or does anecdotal data sourced from staff pack more punch than referring to external statistics.

  7. Have a solution – it seems obvious, but don’t suggest changing a process without providing what the researchers call “thoughtful fixes”. Come prepared with a well researched solution, but be willing to make changes and seek feedback from others to ensure diversity of thought.

Read the full HBR article for further explanation, advice and examples backing up the tactics.


Three tips from successful cases


Getting buy-in is tough, but not impossible. Here are some other tips from your HR peers who’ve successfully done it before to keep in mind.


Find the right balance


In the February edition of HRM magazine, Marnie Briggs CPHR, general manager of HR and Safety at AWH, shared the story of a former boss who said he’d been ‘burnt’ by his last head of HR – they’d too often advocated for employees without considering the businesses needs, he felt.


This meant Briggs had her work cut out for her. Her solution was to focus on changes that maximised returns for the business as well as benefiting staff.


“Employees don’t need to lose for the business to win. For example, the removal of an unpopular incentive scheme in favour of higher base salaries was not about rewarding underperformers, which was his initial impression, but instead about improving team cohesion and enhancing the business’s ability to recruit and retain quality staff,” she said.


Identify your champions


In the July edition of HRM magazine, Sam Turner CPHR, managing director of Sam Turner Inclusion, shared her story about implementing an autism talent program for her former employer, Westpac. While the program added immense value to the bank, it was also quite expensive and high-touch. Turner was strategic about getting buy-in.


“The chief information officer was the executive champion for the disability group, and the chief risk officer was extremely passionate about the cause. So I got them onboard first. Next, we made sure we had a really clear business case. Even though it was high-touch and high-cost, we were able to show them how it fit in with the organisation’s strategy to be an employer of choice and attracting top talent,” she said.


“That’s often the challenge for HR and D&I. They’re influential roles, but you rarely have positional power. You’re often convincing people to do something. But when you present something to your CHRO that’s funded, backed by other executives and has an enormous amount of employee buy-in, it’s really difficult for them to say no to that.”


Involve executives in the change


Last year, Marlene Tanner CPHR told HRM about how she changed the company culture about mental health at International biopharmaceutical company AbbVie, where she is head of development, HR.


The secret to her successful buy-in lies in her inclusion of leadership at every stage of the process.


She had clear data showing employees needed a more comprehensive approach around mental health and rather than going away and creating a framework to present to the executives, she formed a reference group that consisted of the general manager, the HR director, the project leads and five other employees from different parts of the business.


“The reference group was key. We didn’t move forward without their input and buy-in.”


Even though a strong business case isn’t the sole ingredient to success, it is the foundation of which every pitch should be based upon, says Tanner.


“We’re in HR, we’re not holding the purse strings. You need to align everything with business drivers. If you can demonstrate that what you’re doing is good for business, you’ll be able to get the funding and support that you need. And we were able to do that by linking wellness to productivity, engagement and the retention of staff.”


What are your best tips for getting executive buy-in? Share them in the comments below.



Source: HRM Online

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