Top Ten Tips for Ensuring Buy-In from the Top

SSON News and Analysis
Posted: 07/09/2012

No matter how complicated, expansive or arduous the project, one of the biggest challenges facing any transformation program arises near the very beginning: ensuring full buy-in from the top. Many’s the program that’s begun in a rosy glow of optimism only to founder on the rocks of apathy (and occasionally, indeed, antipathy) from the C-suite - especially during tough times when executive attention is often, rightly or wrongly, focused elsewhere.

So how can practitioners ensure they gain - and retain - the support of those whose support matters the most: the C-level movers and shakers upon whose words whole organizations hang? SSON asked some of its members to give their advice on this crucial issue - and you responded with gusto. So now we’re proud to present our Top Ten Tips for Ensuring Buy-In from the Top (and feel free to email us your own ideas - the more tips the merrier!).

1. Present a complete, compelling business case

OK, so it sounds obvious - but going to the top with anything less than a complete, finely detailed business case is the easiest recipe for rejection. The ladies and gentlemen who can green- or red-light your project will want to see exactly (down to the nearest cent) how much your project will save the organization, and why. Any holes in the fabric of your tale and you’ll be out on your ear - and make sure the numbers are sufficiently compelling to excite them in the first place. Savings of 0.0001% won’t justify a multi-million-dollar investment if savings are the aim of the game. Save 10%, however, and you’ll have EVERYONE’s attention.

Shared services head Pedro Ruao highlights the importance of going beyond cost-savings with as comprehensive as possible a business case: "Ensure your business case covers all aspects. Cost-reduction programs, despite the economy, are not the be-all-and-end-all. The board wants to know about service provision, flexibility, retained staff morale, and so on, so the C-suite must present them hard facts on those metrics along with percentage savings."

2. Create a sense of urgency

You want to transform your organization - but you might be up against numerous other pitches all looking for investment capital, so what makes your particular proposal so "now"? Why can’t the board put your pitch on the back-burner - especially when discretionary funds are so scarce worldwide? You need to demonstrate exactly why your program can’t wait

"Prior to discussing your business case, you must establish a "burning platform" for your project," explains CentrePoint Energy‘s Julienne Sugarek. "This should be a three-to-five-minute elevator pitch, backed up with data, that details what could go wrong if the problem is not solved now. In creating your talking points, think about your audience. What is important to them right now? How does your project address those concerns? Create a sense of urgency for your executive team, but be careful not to be overly dramatic with your message."

3. Understand your organization’s internal processes

‘Going through proper channels’ might elicit a sigh of dread amongst many, but there’s no point jeopardizing what could be a business-saving (and career-making) transformation by rushing headlong to the C-suite without ticking all the necessary procedural boxes, no matter how inane you might find the bureaucracy. If someone’s gone to the effort to draw up a form for you to fill in to move your proposal up the ladder, it’s because they really, really want that form filled in - and as that someone might be on the panel you’re pitching to, why lose a friend before you get through the door?

"Make sure you understand fully any internal formal control processes for approving such programmes," advises independent shared services specialist Jim Whitworth. "If such processes exist, you’ll need to fulfill the requirements completely (including any form-filling) as you seek buy-in. You will still need to ensure you have C-suite buy-in through personal presentation, etc, but to do so without completing the prescribed processes will waste time and may alienate the very people you need on-side. Just completing the formal processes and not courting the C-suite is insufficient. Do both."

4. Be open and honest about previous - and current - endeavors

Both at the initial stages and - once given the go-ahead - throughout the program, it’s vital to avoid obfuscation and general fudgery when looking at the work you’ve done. You’re asking these guys to trust you and your team with often vast sums of money - so don’t try to pull the wool over their eyes in return, if they’re asking about what might be seen as shortcomings. They haven’t got where they are by falling for every yarn they’ve been spun, y‘know...

"Discuss openly the mistakes made and share examples," cautions ANZ‘s Director of Operations Ravichandran Venkataraman. "Share also details of what you have done to rectify these mistakes and ensure that your team has learned from them and do not repeat them to a large extent. Not everything will go well in an operation. So, set that expectation, discuss mistakes openly and let business know that you have taken them seriously and put in place corrective actions."

5. Keep company staff in the project

It’s easy to underestimate how cautious many senior figures are about handing over important projects to external advisors - so allay some of those fears by keeping a good number of the company’s own employees involved in the project at all levels, even if ensuring you do so leads to a certain degree of friction with the advisory partner. After all, it’s YOUR program…

"Include inside talent in the project management team," Pedro Ruao confirms. "Many organizations still distrust consultants, regardless of how recognized or how niche they may be. Their contribution is to bring in the methodology and the manpower, but it must be clear to everyone that the steering is from strong individual(s) from within the organization - even when it isn't…"

6. Keep a tight focus…

You might be trying to save the organization (or at least better equip it for the task at hand) but you’re not trying to save the world - so don’t waste your time or your company’s cash by trying to tackling too much at once, or too soon. Keep your project’s aims focused and drive hard with all your resources towards those aims, rather than spreading precious capital too thinly across multiple ambitions. There’s no point risking project failure now for the sake of things that can be done in a year or two.

"Be focused on two or three goals, be realistic, be committed," advise Calvin Yee and Hugh coppen of Accompli Group in their paper ’Disruption and Crisis: an Action Plan for Leaders’. "The intensity of the leader’s focus determines how well the organization stays focused on survival. Disciplined focus on realities and business basics minimizes ‘mission creep’ – when unproductive resource utilization starts to be tolerated again. The leader’s role is to be clear on goals, be realistic about strategies and be intently dedicated to implementing plans. More so than ever, adversity demands smart, hard-nosed, risk assessment that is always fully aligned with current business realities. Given scarce resources, focus on achieving fewer goals as opposed to failing in many areas."

7. …But at the same time, be bold

That said, that doesn’t mean you should keep your program small and inoffensive just so as not to make waves. If you’ve got big, complicated goals, that’s fine - as long as you keep focused on them and they’re worthwhile to begin with. Often the low-hanging fruit aren’t the juiciest or the ripest - and time spent picking them can mean you miss the more important harvest of the good stuff that’s harder to reach.

Stephen Smith, General Manager at Diageo’s shared service center in Budapest, says it‘s important to aim high: "Don't fall into the 'small and simple' trap. There's a temptation to do the stuff that's perceived as 'easy' (e.g., T&E or PTP) before moving onto more complex activities. Similarly there'll be pressure to start with the small business units first. These approaches tend to kill the business case, mire you in a change program that you've under-estimated the difficulty of and give the larger business units a great reason to resist going anywhere near the transformation program for many years. The C-suite won't thank you for being timid."

8. Give - and learn from - examples from beyond the organization

Fear of the unknown’s a common human trait - and believe it or not those big beasts at the top are indeed human - so work to alleviate this issue by demonstrating how the kind of transformation you’re proposing has worked in the past, for other organizations (especially your competitors…). If you can demonstrate from actual experience how successful the transformation has been for others (not to mention how you can learn from the mistakes of your peers, if you have access to that sort of knowledge) you’re much more likely to get the go-ahead yourself.

"You are probably totally focused on how the proposed program will bring beneficial change within the organization," says Jim Whitworth. "The C-suite has to manage the bigger picture of how the company sits in the outside world. So, remember to provide plenty of reference to the actions of peer companies, external benchmarking, precedents and success stories. If the program or its potential impact could be visible externally, the C-suite will want to be comfortable that it will be viewed positively by peers and commentators outside the business."

9. Demonstrate your awareness of risk

You might have found the perfect project which poses absolutely no risk whatsoever to your company - but it’s unlikely outside the world of dreams (and if you’re dreaming of transformation projects… time for a vacation?). In the real world the people you’re pitching to want to be sure that you’re prepared for every eventuality, even the infamous "unknown unknowns". Go into minute detail about what levels of risk you’re facing in all aspects of the project: if you’re asked a question about a risk, however unlikely, you need to be sure you can answer it fully - or you have someone alongside you who can. And it’s not just about understanding the risks: you need to work actively and constantly to keep them down to an acceptable (as defined by above) minimum.

"Have sound risk practices that minimize risk related to operations, fraud, collections and business continuity," urges Ravichandran Venkataraman. "Have in place practices that address appropriately country risk, transaction risk, process risk, financial risk, fraud risk, reputation risk and business continuity risk. Business needs to be confident that you have adequate processes in place, and sound practices and people that can de-risk their businesses to a large extent."

10. Highlight the compliance benefits

Alongside organizational risk is an altogether murkier and even less comfortable topic: the personal risk faced by anyone at or close to the top of an organization in today’s age of compliance. Nobody wants to see their career (or even their liberty) brought to an abrupt end by an inability to comply with business legislation - especially the dreaded Sarbanes-Oxley Act. High-fliers the world over live in fear of being brought down to earth with a bump by the actions of someone working for them; if you can demonstrate the compliance benefits of what you’re doing, you appeal directly to your superiors’ sense of self-preservation as well as to any number of perhaps more laudable characteristics - and of course compliance is good for the whole as well as for the parts, so you’re doing the whole business a favor, as well as those at its helm.

"Pull your SOX up," Stephen Smith advises. "Sarbanes-Oxley is even more relevant in today's straitened economic environment. The single undeniable benefit of transformation is lowering the likelihood of landing the C-suite in the court room. It's amazing what a powerful incentive that is!"

SSON News and Analysis
Posted: 07/09/2012

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