The Smart Way to Influence Your Boss (HBR)

How can I sell this idea to my boss?

This is something that executive coaches hear regularly. It usually comes from someone seeking to lead from the middle. To begin to answer this question, let me tell you a story.

Ronald Reagan is credited with hastening the end of Cold War between the USSR and the USA. While he had long preached nuclear disarmament, his argument gained personal impetus after watching the made-for-TV movie, The Day After, which depicted the destruction of Lawrence, Kansas, after a nuclear blast. The movie, according to The Dead Hand, a recent history of the Cold War era by David Hoffman, left Reagan depressed for days and gave him even more resolve to seek nuclear banishment. Skeptics may scoff that it took a movie to influence the president, but as Hoffman explained on NPR’s Fresh Air, movies helped to shape Reagan’s world view.

Few managers who seek to influence upward have the resources to make a motion picture, but many managers have the cleverness and street smarts to craft an argument to win their cases. As I illustrate in my new book, Lead Your Boss, The Subtle Art of Managing Up, critical to developing a strong case is first and foremost to frame your argument according to the business case: why is it good sense for the organization to pursue your idea? Without a foundation based on either improving or saving the business, your idea has no chance; with it, you can begin.

To build upon your business case, you must frame your argument, in effect your sales pitch, in ways which appeal to the person with authority. Here’s how.

1. Adopt your boss’ point of view. Marshall Goldsmith taught me that if you want to influence the CEO then you need to see the world as he or she sees it. CEOs take a corporate-wide view of performance, of course, but each of them has hot button issues around products and services, employee morale, or their legacies. If you have a boss who’s a cost-cutter, frame your pitch as a means of cutting costs, or at least reducing expenses. Likewise if you have a boss who is focused on customer issues — frame your pitch as a way to improve customer service or product benefits. The angle of your pitch depends upon the boss’ interest.

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First posted on on 10/14/2009