How to Gain Alignment and Influence Stakeholders
Have you ever prepared for a meeting with your executive stakeholders, expecting all to go well, only to have it blow up in your face? If you haven’t, count yourself lucky! There is nothing worse than preparing endlessly for an executive meeting only to have the executives get hung up on some little nit of an issue.
“Where did those numbers come from?”
“Have you run this by Joe? We tried this already five years ago and it was a dismal failure!”
“How is this aligned with our corporate priorities?”
“Who’s paying for this?”
All very good questions you need to have answered well in advance and have covered off with those in the room, a least the key influencers who can help you if the meeting has the potential to run off the rails. The higher up the executive, the greater the potential. The average executive has an attention span of a couple minutes. I’m not being derogatory, its just that they have so much on their plate, they will within minutes decide if this meeting or initiative is worth their precious time. They are busy and if you waste their time, you are dead in the water. If you get hung up on a detail or if they are not aware of the initiative you are trying to push forward, they will pull back and shut down, usually not willing to make any commitment or give buy in without prior knowledge of or prior bias for the initiative. It is absolutely critical that you socialize your ideas with key stakeholders and influcencers, answer any and all possible questions and gain that critical buy in, well in advance of any executive meetings.
My old boss was a master at this one. He would always meet with the key influencers well in advance to ensure he knew if they were a supporter or not. If he thought you were on the fence or could be a nay-sayer, he would be sure to spend a lot of time with you in advance. The harder the nut to crack, the more time you need to spend with that person. Find out why and often they will have legitimate concerns you haven’t thought of yet and need to solve.
I’ve learned this lesson a couple of times. I recall one of my early lessons was when I was working at a large insurance company in Toronto. I was working on a software licensing initiative that would save the company millions of dollars. The problem was the licensing program was new and there were not many companies who had as yet adopted the program. I prepared for weeks to meet with the CIO, who had a reputation for being a hard ass. My VP at the time had me spinning in circles, changing fonts, sizes, italics, page orders etc. I was so spun up and focused on making the presentation look nice that I neglected to even find out if the CIO had even heard of the program or had a preference or bias in one way or another. I could have met with his key lieutenants to find out and garnered their support but I did not. My boss at the time was hopeless at technology so was no help what so ever.
The fateful day arrives and my boss and I enter the CIO’s office to meet with him. He’s on the phone but we are ushered in by his assistant to sit at the conference table in his office. I have the presentation copies with me. I worked so hard on the presentation that I couldn’t wait to show off and walk the CIO through it.
After what seemed like forever, the CIO finally hangs up and without even rising from his chair, turns and says;
“I’m told this new licensing program is a bad idea. Why the hell would you even suggest we think about this?”
I’m taken aback. He hasn’t even sat down at the conference table and he’s already rejected the idea.
“Well John, if you will allow me to take you through the presentation, I’m confident I can show you why this is a good idea.” I respond.
My boss has yet to utter a word. The CIO rounds his desk and finally sits down. Immediately he picks up the presentation and flips to the last page. “I don’t buy it. There is no way we can save this kind of money. Where did you get these numbers?”
“Well if you will allow me to start at the beginning…” I try to steer him back to the first page of the presentation so I can walk him through each glorious and shiny page.
“No, tell me why you think this is a good idea. I talked to [insert some other CIO name here] and he tells me [Insert some other company name here] looked at this and rejected the idea.”
Again I try feebly to redirect him to the beginning and he will have none of it. “I don’t have time for this. I think you guys are trying to sell me on a bad idea. Why should we do this? I don’t believe your numbers…”
I get so frustrated, I forget myself and finally, turning the presentation over, I slam my hand down on the conference table and say;
“Well if you would just give me a chance, I will explain why this is a good idea and why this is going to save the company millions of dollars!”
Holy crap! I not only raised my voice to the CIO, I actually slammed my hand down on his conference table in frustration. Please don’t ever do this. Its unprofessional and never a good idea. Too late for me. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound. I returned his stare and sat silent for a split second while the look of shock momentarily flitted across his face.
I then dove in with both feet and set aside the presentation. I had worked on this for so long I knew it off by heart, backwards and forwards and I knew it was the right thing to do for the company.
I knew this CIO had a reputation for chewing up and spitting out people like me yet I hadn’t even bothered to learn where his head was at on the project. What was I thinking? It took me about 15 minutes to walk him through the numbers and convince him it was the right thing to do and in the end he approved the project to proceed. It did save the company millions of dollars and I learned a few valuable lessons that day:
- I use to have a bad temper when frustrated and if given the opportunity and left unchecked, it got me into trouble. I’ve worked on this over the years and no longer am I given to bouts of unchecked frustration. I no longer slam my hand down on CIO’s conference tables.
- Be confident, know your subject and the value. The CIO liked to push people to see how far he could go before they would push back. He would respect you if you stood up to him and that is why I wasn’t thrown out of his office. If I had backed down and left his office with my tail between my legs, the project would have died.
- Never ever walk into a meeting without having done your homework! Always take the time to research, speak to others about the project and do your homework in advance to gain critical buy in and support.
While this story does end in success, it has taken me several blazing failures to learn these valuable lessons. Hopefully it won’t take you yelling at a CIO to get your project approved. That risky trick will never work twice!