Getting Leader Buy-In for Big Change

Recently I worked with a company struggling to adjust to the digital landscape. People tried introducing new processes to put web first, but everyone kept wandering back to what they had always done. My colleagues asked what they could do to make these changes stick. I had ideas, and certainly wanted to help them out, but the reality was they were starting in the wrong place. This was this kind of big change that needed to come from their leaders.

I learned pretty quickly working in higher ed that I could write up the prettiest content strategy manifestos, but unless I had the backing of higher-ups who would manage push back, make priority decisions, and keep staff from sliding back into the familiar, my little manifestos might as well have been filed away neatly on a forgotten webpage.

Getting the buy-in of our leaders is crucial for the kinds of changes we want to make, whether it’s moving to a new content management system, going through a rebranding, or recoding and rewriting thousands of lines in our ERP to integrate better with our web content.

No matter where we sit in the organizational hierarchy, there's liking someone sitting above us who wields the influence we need to make our big ideas happen. But earning their support isn't always easy.

So where do you to start?

Get stuff done

On a recent phone call with a prospective client, I had to quickly build an argument that would land me the job. It was a big project with a fixed, tight deadline, but I had learned enough about the scope to know it was doable. I could get it done.

So my pitch was just that. If they hired me, their project would launch on time. I promised delivery and won that bid because of my promise. And now I have a great business relationship because I delivered what I promised, and I delivered early.

Leaders like people who deliver.

They want to see projects completed, tasks checked off the list, and job numbers closed. They want to see that our good planning actually leads to forward progress within their organization.

In my experience, the quickest way to build trust and demonstrate competency is turn out good work over and over again. Until your leaders know you can deliver, you can forget introducing that new content strategy or technology migration. Even if it’s a good idea, they won’t buy in unless they believe you can get it done.

Do what you can to deliver what you’ve promised on time or early—from big site launches to simple reports. Continuous, prompt delivery builds up your stock so can use that clout down the road when you need to advocate for big change.

Protect the blind side

Leaders don’t like bad surprises.

They don’t like being bushwhacked by someone I’ve pissed off or by a major project delay I kinda saw coming. Instead, like most of us, they like being prepared for stressful conversations. They want to know what’s coming at them and what’s getting held up. It makes them feel in control.

If we want our leaders to trust us, we have to show we care about their success and reputation. This means we have to protect their blind side.

Most of the time our leaders don’t know much about our projects. They don’t know the mess of trying to audit and evaluate years of legacy webpages. They don’t know our protocols for user testing and site QA.

This is how things should be. That’s why they hired us. We’re pretty good at performing. We make decisions. We move things along. We don’t consult them every step of the way. Like we already discussed, we get stuff done.

But this also means we’re going to sniff out issues before they do.

We’re going to know first when technical setbacks are way bigger than we imagined or when subject matter experts are going to cause a major delay. We know when we don’t have the resources to deliver on someone’s ambitious deadline or who might blow up at a meeting next week.

So we need to be the buffer. We need to be the filter.

We need to continuously decide which situations we can manage and mitigate before they become real problems and which require conversations with our leaders so they can be prepared and successful when issues escalate and people get nutty.

Figuring out what to communicate and when is a delicate yet important balance. But if you’re ever in doubt, it’s far better to over-communicate than leave your leader defenseless when the bit hit comes.

Be honest

I’ve seen people kill their reputation when they try to please everyone because they don’t want to let people down.

On the surface, these pleasers seem easy to work with but it’s often hard to know what’s actually happening.

Can they get the integration done on time? Does their team really understand how much content rework we’re going to need? Do they have the resources to onboard the new system?

Good leaders want the truth, even when it’s tough.

Sure, you might disappoint your boss or have to admit your own mistakes and limitations, but giving your honest opinion shows you’re aware of the situation and your company’s capabilities. It demonstrates you have a realistic understanding of your task and environment, which is crucial to initiating any kind of large-scale change. 

This doesn’t mean we need to disclose every little thing. We don’t need to be tattletales, whiners, or snoops. We're adults. 

Being honest is about tactfully giving your assessment without throwing people under the bus or being unnecessarily dramatic.

Honesty also doesn’t give us permission to be overly-analytical or reject stuff we don’t want to do. Sometimes we’re going to have to work late nights to meet a tight deadline. Sometimes we’re going to take on projects that push us way outside our comfort zone. We’re going to be uncomfortable. Conversations will be tense. Our leaders will feel challenged by the truth. But even if our leaders are a bit frustrated, it’s our job assess the situation in a realistic way and find the best way to move forward. 

Make a clear, objective case

Our leaders are often hired for a different set of skills than us content or web production folks. They’re hired to manage difficult people, make tough priority decisions, care about their staff, and rally people around a common vision. They’re not necessarily hired to plan IA, pull analytics, or develop content models.

This means our terms and the way we talk about our work can sometimes get in the way of shared understanding. And when we present our case poorly, we often make leaders feel insecure about their knowledge or confused about what we need from them.

So when we’re trying to get their buy-in for a new content process, team structure, or project management system, it’s important to use a language they understand and present objective arguments they can easily rationalize.

To present a clear case, I find it helpful to write a proposal. I know proposals might sound a little formal or outdated, but it doesn’t have to be on letterhead. You don’t have to nail it to the door. Even if you work in super lax culture, you can find a way to make your proposal seem not so stuffy and suit your environment.

I like taking time to write stuff down because it gives me the chance to try out logical ways of presenting my case before I actually have to pitch it to someone.

I anticipate the questions people will ask. I eliminate jargon and simplify my language. I make sure I’m comfortable with the possible outcomes I’m proposing. And when I'm done, I have a slick agenda to use during the inevitable meeting people call after getting little hot and hung up about a new idea. 

Here are the big tickets I try to hit:

  • Why this matters (the need for change, opportunities, benefits)
  • Comparison of a few solutions with pros and cons to each (including costs, resource needs, and timelines)
  • Possible challenges with ideas for how to manage them
  • My recommendation based on my research and assessment
  • What I need them to do next (a clear call to action for my leaders)

When presenting my case, I also recognize where we’ve been. I validate their contributions and note what we’ve been doing well and how it’s served us. It’s good to pay tribute. It’s good to recognize and build them up. Then, I reiterate my facts, offer a recommendation, and create space for them to make a decision based on the objective case I’ve provided.

Let your leaders lead

For big change, it’s ultimately your leaders’ call.

They’re going to have to back you up, allocate resources, and navigate some politics, so they need to be confident in their decision. At this point, as a follower, it’s your job to turn off ego, detach your personal emotions, and let your leaders lead.

If you’ve done the hard work, you don’t have to worry too much.

If your leaders trust you, if you’ve clearly presented your case, if you’ve provided a few helpful solutions you can live with, it's not likely they'll make a decision that sets you up for failure. And if they do have to reject your proposal, it’s your turn to extend your own trust, support their decision, and keep on doing good work.