How do you influence your boss?

The question of how you influence your boss is something executive coaches hear a lot. The question more often than not comes from someone seeking to lead from the middle. To begin to answer this question, let me tell you a story.

Ronald Reagan has the credit for hastening the end of the 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.  This movie 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. It gave him further resolve to seek nuclear banishment. Sceptics 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.

Lead your boss

If you are a manager who is seeking to influence your boss, you likely haven’t the resources to make a motion picture.  However, many managers have the cleverness and street smarts to craft an argument to win their case. As I illustrate in my 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’s 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 the very least pitch for 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.

2. Paint a picture

We saw how movies affected Reagan. Consider how your boss likes information. It may a straightforward spreadsheet or a narrative business plan. Do what makes sense but don’t stop there. If your idea is big and bold, make it so by producing a video or using photographs. These options are effective when demonstrating customer concerns. A video of a customer expressing a desire or a concern about a product improvement or deficiency can be a powerful persuasive tool. If your initiative is about an internal improvement, interview end-users who will benefit from the adoption of your idea.

3. Make it come alive

When Eleanor Roosevelt was being courted by Franklin, she took him to the Lower East Side of New York City where she was doing relief work with the poor, chiefly immigrants. Taking the patrician Franklin in and out of decaying tenements opened his eyes to the fact that there was real poverty in the world. So to make your case, take your boss to the heart of the action. For example, if you are pushing for an improvement on the factory floor, bring him to the line and show him what you intend to do. Or if you want to demonstrate a customer need, invite the boss to a focus group with customers. There is nothing like real-world examples to demonstrate your argument.

Credibility is key

These three steps to make your argument come alive do work, but they need something else — your credibility. If you want to lead up and influence your boss, you need to be perceived as competent. Therefore, it is more difficult to sell upward if you are brand new to your job unless you were hired to do so (that is, shake things up with new ideas). Credibility is earned through example, especially by doing your job well over a period of time. Also, critical for those who manage in the middle, credibility is enhanced by the ability to collaborate with peers.

Pitching ideas upward and acting on them is essential to the process of leading up, which by nature is something that demands an ability to balance the big picture of what the organization needs with the day-to-day reality of what you do. When selling an idea to your superiors, even to the CEO, it is important to believe in your ability to effect positive change. Transformation may be sanctioned from on high, but it is men and women in the middle who make it become reality, and that is a persuasive case in itself.

You can find John’s book “Lead Your Boss, The Subtle Art of Managing Up” on Amazon.

Browse John’s website and find out more about his executive coaching expertise.

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 John Baldoni, chair of leadership development at N2Growth, is an Top 50 Leadership Expert and author of more than a dozen books including MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.

John is a member of the renowned Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches, a group of executive coaches and thought leaders from the worlds of business, academia and social services.