article

How to
Sell Your
Agenda

Revel Gordon

I went to see Professor Martin Seligman present at the Sydney Opera House recently. The ‘father’ of positive psychology shared an anecdote that made me shake my head and smile. He described meeting the then US Army Chief of Staff, George Casey. Casey was concerned about the high psychological toll the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking on the men and women under his command, and invited Seligman in to discuss the problem. Casey was so impressed with Seligman’s proposal that “he approved – no, ordered – the (US$31m) program, on the spot”.

At a stroke, Casey had committed 1,400 Staff Sergeants to be trained in positive psychology principles, which they would then teach to the rest of the army. He didn’t consult anyone else. He didn’t need to build a business case to present to a board or governance committee. He issued an order, and that was that.

How different things are in the corporate world. Effective business leaders need to skillfully build coalitions of stakeholders. They successfully navigate conflicting agendas and siloed ‘fiefdoms’ in order to get things done. It is here that the difference between IQ and EQ really becomes apparent. Time and again I see exceptionally intelligent executives get frustrated when they can’t get traction for the strategy that they have so carefully developed (and which, by any rational measure, is the optimal approach for the organisation). Unfortunately, the best plan in the world isn’t worth the Powerpoint deck it’s printed on if you can’t get key stakeholders on board.

This is where EQ comes in. While there are times when highly directive leadership approaches are appropriate, more often than not it is the deft exercise of ‘soft power’ that is critical to success.

So what is the key to getting others to buy in to your agenda? Self-concordance theory (SCT) provides a useful framework for considering this question. Developed by Sheldon & Elliott, SCT posits that people are more likely to actively engage (and stay engaged) with goals and actions that align with their personal values and drivers, and are less likely to engage when things are ‘forced’ upon them. The following diagram neatly summarises the concept.

External actions are things we are ‘required to do’ (even though we don’t really want to). Preparing tax returns falls into this category for most people. Introjected activities are ‘should dos’. When I woke up this morning at 5:30am and looked out into the cold and rain, my morning swim and run around Clovelly beach was something I knew I should do…but didn’t particularly want to. Both External and Introjected actions are (or feel) imposed upon us from the outside, and as a result, we tend not to fully buy into them.

By contrast, Identified actions (things we want to do) and Integrated actions (things we love to do), are aligned with our internal values, and so we are far more committed and passionate about them.

Applying this in a corporate context, if you can frame your agenda in a way that aligns with your stakeholders’ concerns, you can change how they view your strategy or initiative, turning it from a ‘must do’ or ‘should do’, into a ‘want to do’ or even a ‘love to do’.

The key to achieving this is to gain an understanding of what each key stakeholder really cares about. Do not assume that your concerns are their concerns! You may be focused on cost, but they may care more about impact on service or people. You may be seeking improved customer service, whereas they are concerned about losing control. These are all examples of common sources of misalignment.

Sometimes the issue is less obvious. Consider this situation: someone is blocking your agenda, and you can’t figure out why. So you take the time to get to know them better, and eventually earn their trust. They open up and share their true concern: a close friend works in the department you want to send offshore. They know your plan makes business sense, but don’t want their friend to lose their job. Once you know the real issue, it can be easily resolved. For example, you might help find the friend another (appropriate) role elsewhere in the organisation. All of a sudden, your agendas are aligned, and the blocker has become a key supporter.

Note, it may not be possible to gain everyone’s active support. Consider your options at this stage. Would escalating the issue resolve things? Could you scale back the change agenda to something that everyone would agree to, and then seek to drive further change at a later date? Can you neutralize the blockers and get your proposal through, despite their opposition?

It isn’t always about finding the perfect solution. It’s about finding the best possible solution. That is, the best solution for which you can win over a constituency. Relationships are critical, particularly at senior levels. Strong, trusting relationships can deliver support for even the most challenging change agenda. By contrast, if key stakeholders don’t know and trust you, even the most sensible proposals can fail to get approved.

The bottom line is that by the time you present in the boardroom to the entire stakeholder group, you should aim to have already met with all the key people and have secured their support, or at least know where they stand. Presenting your grand plan to a large group of external stakeholders without first having ‘pre-sold’ it to the individuals in the room is a high-risk strategy that often ends in disaster.

Unlike George Casey, most executives cannot manage by fiat. Even where this is an option, a command and control approach is not well suited to the complex and fast-changing business world of today. Instead, it is those executives who can successfully wield ‘soft power’ to build coalitions and win the battle for hearts and minds that are most likely to succeed.

I went to see Professor Martin Seligman present at the Sydney Opera House recently. The ‘father’ of positive psychology shared an anecdote that made me shake my head and smile. He described meeting the then US Army Chief of Staff, George Casey. Casey was concerned about the high psychological toll the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking on the men and women under his command, and invited Seligman in to discuss the problem. Casey was so impressed with Seligman’s proposal that “he approved – no, ordered – the (US$31m) program, on the spot”.

At a stroke, Casey had committed 1,400 Staff Sergeants to be trained in positive psychology principles, which they would then teach to the rest of the army. He didn’t consult anyone else. He didn’t need to build a business case to present to a board or governance committee. He issued an order, and that was that.

How different things are in the corporate world. Effective business leaders need to skillfully build coalitions of stakeholders. They successfully navigate conflicting agendas and siloed ‘fiefdoms’ in order to get things done. It is here that the difference between IQ and EQ really becomes apparent. Time and again I see exceptionally intelligent executives get frustrated when they can’t get traction for the strategy that they have so carefully developed (and which, by any rational measure, is the optimal approach for the organisation). Unfortunately, the best plan in the world isn’t worth the Powerpoint deck it’s printed on if you can’t get key stakeholders on board.

This is where EQ comes in. While there are times when highly directive leadership approaches are appropriate, more often than not it is the deft exercise of ‘soft power’ that is critical to success.

So what is the key to getting others to buy in to your agenda? Self-concordance theory (SCT) provides a useful framework for considering this question. Developed by Sheldon & Elliott, SCT posits that people are more likely to actively engage (and stay engaged) with goals and actions that align with their personal values and drivers, and are less likely to engage when things are ‘forced’ upon them. The following diagram neatly summarises the concept.

External actions are things we are ‘required to do’ (even though we don’t really want to). Preparing tax returns falls into this category for most people. Introjected activities are ‘should dos’. When I woke up this morning at 5:30am and looked out into the cold and rain, my morning swim and run around Clovelly beach was something I knew I should do…but didn’t particularly want to. Both External and Introjected actions are (or feel) imposed upon us from the outside, and as a result, we tend not to fully buy into them.

By contrast, Identified actions (things we want to do) and Integrated actions (things we love to do), are aligned with our internal values, and so we are far more committed and passionate about them.

Applying this in a corporate context, if you can frame your agenda in a way that aligns with your stakeholders’ concerns, you can change how they view your strategy or initiative, turning it from a ‘must do’ or ‘should do’, into a ‘want to do’ or even a ‘love to do’.

The key to achieving this is to gain an understanding of what each key stakeholder really cares about. Do not assume that your concerns are their concerns! You may be focused on cost, but they may care more about impact on service or people. You may be seeking improved customer service, whereas they are concerned about losing control. These are all examples of common sources of misalignment.

Sometimes the issue is less obvious. Consider this situation: someone is blocking your agenda, and you can’t figure out why. So you take the time to get to know them better, and eventually earn their trust. They open up and share their true concern: a close friend works in the department you want to send offshore. They know your plan makes business sense, but don’t want their friend to lose their job. Once you know the real issue, it can be easily resolved. For example, you might help find the friend another (appropriate) role elsewhere in the organisation. All of a sudden, your agendas are aligned, and the blocker has become a key supporter.

Note, it may not be possible to gain everyone’s active support. Consider your options at this stage. Would escalating the issue resolve things? Could you scale back the change agenda to something that everyone would agree to, and then seek to drive further change at a later date? Can you neutralize the blockers and get your proposal through, despite their opposition?

It isn’t always about finding the perfect solution. It’s about finding the best possible solution. That is, the best solution for which you can win over a constituency. Relationships are critical, particularly at senior levels. Strong, trusting relationships can deliver support for even the most challenging change agenda. By contrast, if key stakeholders don’t know and trust you, even the most sensible proposals can fail to get approved.

The bottom line is that by the time you present in the boardroom to the entire stakeholder group, you should aim to have already met with all the key people and have secured their support, or at least know where they stand. Presenting your grand plan to a large group of external stakeholders without first having ‘pre-sold’ it to the individuals in the room is a high-risk strategy that often ends in disaster.

Unlike George Casey, most executives cannot manage by fiat. Even where this is an option, a command and control approach is not well suited to the complex and fast-changing business world of today. Instead, it is those executives who can successfully wield ‘soft power’ to build coalitions and win the battle for hearts and minds that are most likely to succeed.