Without Strong Relationships, You’ll Never Get Buy-In for Your Ideas

In a perfect world, people make rational decisions and the best idea always wins. But as we all know, things don’t always work out this way.

Your ability to move your initiatives forward requires an integrated set of skills that allow you to build up the political capital you need for people to “vote for you” when the time comes.

As an executive coach, I’ve seen the need for leaders in even the highest levels of an organization’s hierarchy to get buy-in for their ideas before they can move forward.

Related read: The Secret to Strong Leadership is Self-Care

For example, one of my clients, Barry, is the chief information officer of a big financial services company. His team created a unique data dashboard that the employees absolutely loved. They said it was clear, beautifully designed, and easy to use.

Barry saw potential to move beyond using it internally. He thought they could create a business and sell this and other new data products to their existing customer base. He’d always dreamed of being an entrepreneur, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to make that happen.

But it wasn’t a slam dunk. This was the first time the company had even contemplated starting up a business internally, so he realized he’d have to thoroughly think through how to get this done. He’d created a solid business plan, but he also had to “work the crowd,” even as everyone was working virtually.

Build strong relationships before you need them

One of the key insights from the seminal work about influence by the world’s leading expert, Robert Cialdini, is that people will support your initiative for two interlocking reasons: They like you and you’ve done them favors.

This means you have to build strong business relationships over a period of time. When you share a few laughs together and you have experiences of mutually helping each other, you have people who will support you and your ideas when the time comes.

When we drew a quick chart of Barry’s peers on the executive team and evaluated his relationships with each of them, it was easy to see that the more organic contact he had with someone the better relationship he had. He realized that there were a few key connections he should upgrade: the chief people officer (CPO), who would have to sign off on anything related to a new entity, and the chief marketing officer (CMO), who was particularly influential because everyone knew he had the ear of the CEO.

“People will support your initiative for two interlocking reasons: They like you and you’ve done them favors.”

To build these alliances, Barry had to increase the frequency of contact. He offered to sit in on the marketing/IT task force meetings that the CMO ran. His presence allowed quicker decision-making and more thoughtfulness in discussions, which was particularly useful now that these meetings took place on video because of the pandemic.

His personal attention also helped him develop an easier rapport with the CMO and, predictably, created even more contact in follow-ups, building a stronger rapport between the two of them.

Barry also set up a monthly check-in with the CPO to do a business health check. After a few months of regular discussions, they got to know each other better and they helped each other in small ways: She gave Barry some good ideas about dealing with a difficult employee and Barry lent her a resource to help with an internal project. Favor exchange is a great way to build alliances.

Think big but start small

Sometimes people are ready to “vote” for a big idea all at once. Most often, though, they’re more comfortable moving forward with a pilot or proof of concept. Many people feel more comfortable going in stages.

Barry didn’t quite know how to create a “pilot” out of an entire new business. As we discussed it together, we realized that he could manage a “proof of concept.”

His group was already deploying the software internally and it worked well. He decided to simply ask the executive team to approve an implementation within one or two existing customer sites. It would allow his team to get feedback on the product, and they would learn about the process implementing it with actual customers.

“Many people feel more comfortable going in stages.”

Once they had that up and running for a few months, Barry figured they could use the feedback to refine the product and the implementation. Starting small and getting feedback would help the executive team vote “yes” on the bigger idea of creating a new business.

Luckily Barry had an exceptional relationship with the chief revenue officer, who thought it would actually help her sales team by creating some goodwill. She supported this idea to the rest of the executives, and Barry’s team conducted the test.

Create enlightened self-interest

People you need to get buy-in from have their own agendas. It’s just the way the world works—and if you’re honest, you’ll admit you have your own agenda too.

These agendas can be perfectly appropriate: expanding revenue, helping customers, running a capital efficient business. These are agenda items all executives should take on personally.

But everyone has different assumptions and experiences, different ways of thinking, and different lines of sight. Add to that people’s personal agendas to be successful, build their careers, move forward a pet project, and it’s a miracle that anyone can agree on anything in the corporate world.

“When you want to get others on board, it’s not enough to have brilliant ideas.”

Barry had no illusions about this. He knew his new business would collide with others’ self-interest. Just as a starting point he’d have to poach people from his peers to run the pilot and then ultimately start up the business.

Here he decided to engage the CPO to help—after he’d gotten to know her better. Barry discovered during their monthly meetings that she wanted to work on something new and to be known as a more innovative leader.

So he made her a partner. He asked her to help set up the new organization with existing staff without alienating the executive team. She came up with the idea of rolling it up into a career-developing “rotational program” for high-potential employees. They both felt very optimistic that could be sold to the executive team since they’d been clamoring for a program to use to develop their high potentials.

When you want to get others on board, it’s not enough to have brilliant ideas. You have to craft a strategy for buy-in so that others can get on board to help you see your vision come to light.

Editor’s note: This was originally published on Forbes.com and shared here with permission.

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Alisa Cohn
Alisa Cohn
Executive Coach

Alisa Cohn is the author of "From Start-up to Grown-up," and an executive coach who works with startup executives to help them develop the leadership skills they need to scale their companies successfully. She has worked with companies from very early stage to Fortune 50. Her clients include Venmo, Foursquare, Facebook, Google, Cisco and Dell. Click here to pre-order "From Start-up to Grown-up"
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