5 Ways to Sell Your Ideas to Leadership with Gusto

By: Neena Paul

You’ve been working on a project. You’ve created meaningful ideas for your organization. You’ve been through rounds of iteration, research and opportunity sizing and now it’s time to share with leadership. You have 15 minutes on their agenda. They ask you a couple of questions, but you can’t really read their expressions. Then, they ask for more information in order to make the decision. You leave the meeting in innovation limbo, waiting to learn the fate of the past months worth of work.

Does this story about selling-in ideas to leadership sound familiar?

Creating great innovations can be tough. The journey can be long. Months, and at times, even years of effort could all be hanging on the success of one of those meetings.

It’s easy to get a bit robotic or prescriptive at this stage of the journey. Templates and stage gate protocol can often squash the spirit and creativity you’ve relied on to get to this stage in the first place.

Why not treat the sell-in with gusto? Here are a few things that could help you turn your typical sell-in meetings into a powerful leadership engagement tool.

1. Create a burning platform by demonstrating the cost of inaction — It’s important to not only romance the problem or opportunity you are facing, but to highlight the cost of inaction. Creating a realistic sense of urgency around the problem can immediately help capture your leaders’ attention. Talk about what might happen if a competitor were to launch this idea instead, or if you were to miss a market trend entirely — how that could impact your business? With the speed of disruption in the marketplace today, inaction can be our greatest enemy. Doing this at the start of your presentation will definitely get your leaders to stand up and pay attention. In the words of H. Jackson Brown, Jr., “nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.”

2. Leave a seat open for the consumer/customer in presentation — It’s hard to debate the merit of an idea when customers themselves are telling you they need it. Consider bringing them into the meeting,
either virtually through video or even physically, to talk directly to your leaders.

An internationally acclaimed businessman is infamous for “the empty chair” that he leaves open at his company’s meeting. This chair acts as a physical reminder to ensure the customer’s voice is heard in every meeting. Why not fill the chair? I’ve brought customers/consumers into a presentation to talk directly to leaders. Hearing the customer’s needs and desires first hand helps to sell the idea.

3. Value to an innovator goes beyond the bottom line — Showing growth potential is obviously critical, but why stop there? Try demonstrating the value of the idea by including financial metrics, but going beyond them to consider the entire ecosystem of the idea and how it could improve a range of growth objectives. Consider building a case that is both commercial and human, using hard and soft metrics to differentiate from other investments being considered and ensure longer lasting sponsorship. Stretch impact to include things like category reinvention, employee retention, talent recruitment, intellectual property, carbon footprint reduction, etc.

4. Treat your leaders as collaborators versus judges - At the end of the day, we are all human. Remember that your leaders are in this with you, but they just may be coming into the room with additional objectives and a more panoramic view. To ensure your meeting is productive for everyone, use the innovation behavior we call “signaling.” If you need your leaders to build ideas, tell them that at the start. If you need them to approve funding for the next phase of development, signal that. And remember, part of their buy-in will not just be based in the rational argument you present. It will be based on the contagiousness of your passion, the energy you create and how it aligns with their own personal goals and those of the organization. Creating an environment of collaboration can increase the potential for impact.

A friend of ?What If! and leader of Independent Diplomat, Carne Ross, told us of a story on how he got to break down barriers at a UN Security Council meeting, all with a boom box. They were in a stalemate, no one willing to budge in order to reach an agreement. After a few days of negotiations, Carne showed up with a boom box in hand and played everyone his favorite British punk song Wild Wood by Paul Weller. He explained why he loved it and watched the energy start to shift. As the week continued, a diplomat from another country played their favorite local song at the beginning of the day. It became infectious, China, Norway, France and Jamaica all shared. People started to not just talk, but also really listen. They were able to progress the dialogue and work together, all by sharing a little bit of themselves and what they love.

5. Don’t just sell, story-sell — Consider connecting all of the dots of the story and finding the most compelling ways to tell and show the story so that the leaders go beyond absorbing the idea, to actually feeling it. Showcasing not just the ideas, but how they will be experienced, helps to paint a picture of the upside of an idea. After all, a little bit of drama goes a long way.

Getting new, disruptive ideas approved can be challenging anywhere, even at a creative company like Disney. One Imagineer thought that Disney should launch a live animal theme park. Michael Eisner, the CEO at the time, and his leadership team thought that live animals didn’t capture the ‘magic’ that people expect from Disney. So instead of getting more data, the Imagineer brought a live Bengal Tiger to the meeting and watched the magic take over. Animal Kingdom was approved right then and there and as we know, was a great success.

Following these five steps to help sell-in great ideas will mean that more impactful innovations will get to market. But remember, this sell-in meeting I’ve described should really just be the crescendo to a series of selling moments along the innovation journey. Every happy hour, coffee chat, elevator run-in is an opportunity to gain support. Building enthusiasm through contagious passion throughout the project is the magic ingredient for ideas to see the light of day.