Selling your idea up the food chain

You’ve got a great idea, it’s going to save money, make money, change the way your company does things, it might even be revolutionary.

But how do you convince other people of your genius? And what if you’re punching above your weight, perhaps you’re a new face in the company, or a junior team member, and your idea’s a little “above your station”?

How do you sell your idea up the food chain, or as Ros Toynbee, director and lead coach of The Career Coach, puts it – “influencing without authority”.

Organisations need ideas

“You can assume that most organisations want to realise their objectives and save time and money,” continues Ros. “Pitching ideas that meet organisational needs shows that you demonstrate commercial awareness and are willing to go above and beyond your job description. Being successful in implementing a good idea is also likely to work in your favour at appraisal and/or salary review time.

“So take calculated risks and speak up. If your idea is not successful, you will learn so much from the process of doing it, you’ll know how you can make this or future ideas more successful.”

But if you’re completely new to the job, a little deference could be wise, be careful of rocking the boat, says Dr Sally Ann Law, a personal and executive coach. “Spend a little time building relationships and gauging how the politics work before putting your head above the parapet.

“Consider who your best ally is and speak to that person – ideally your line manager. It might take a while to build up to a position of credibility so accept that. Don’t try to sledgehammer your idea forward.”

Find your champion

Your line-manager will likely be your first champion, who will encourage and support you when you meet challenges, says Ros. “You can test your pitch with them – or a trusted colleague if you prefer. If you go behind your manager’s back, you may lose trust with them and trust is harder to rebuild than it is to lose.”

But as Ros also highlights, before your enthusiasm gets the better of you and you’re bugging you line-manager with the idea of the century, make sure it aligns with a recognised business or departmental need. “You will need to demonstrate what we call ‘WIIFT’ or ‘what’s in it for them’. Managers, decision makers and those that influence the decision makers will need to clearly understand how your idea will achieve those objectives.”

Do your research – interview affected departments or clients as to the impact of the problem and gather some evidence of the difference it will make if solved, says Ros. “Starting out, you also want to have an idea that doesn’t cost money (or much money) to implement or doesn’t require too many decision-making layers, perhaps only your line-manager. Evidence and statistics will help you build a ‘business case’ for why there is a problem and the savings that will ensue if your solution is implemented.”

Prepare the pitch

Ros recommends covering four bases when preparing to sell your idea face-to-face:

  1. Why your specific audience should listen to what you are about to propose – using the stats and evidence you’ve gathered.
  2. What the idea is.
  3. How you would implement it.
  4. If you were to implement it, the results it would create.

“Paint pictures of how the clients would receive the new service, what they’d be saying or feeling about it,” says Ros. “Use all the senses to engage and inspire your audience, and tell stories, give examples. Show them what the opportunity is. You will already have anticipated all the likely objections (time, cost and all the others) and have woven answers to these in your presentation or have practiced answers if you are asked tough questions afterwards.”

The big day

Be aware of your body language and your audiences. You will need to have great eye contact and show enthusiasm, but also be on the lookout for how your message is being received, suggests Ros. “Is your audience’s body language open or closed? Are they checking the clock or their phones or hanging on your every word? Don’t worry about winning over everyone at first. If you have prepared to influence the key decision makers and their influencers in the room, you are half-way there.”

And don’t panic when you get asked questions, even chewy ones, it ultimately means people are sitting up and taking notice, their critical minds engaged, and it’s better than a dead response, which probably means you haven’t done your research or identified the right people to pitch to.

“If you get a question you really don’t know the answer to be humble enough to say you’ll find out and get back to the person,” says Ros. “If you get a really stinky objection, take a few moments to listen and explore what’s concerning them, make a mental note and perhaps follow up with them after the meeting.”

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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