Why leaders need to get buy-in (and how they can do it)

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] October 1, 2016

Practice leaders who respect the impact that their ideas have on key stakeholders have a greater chance of getting employees to embrace their management style and ideas, writes Simon Dowling.

If you have ever been charged with leading anything – a team, a project, a committee or an entire organisation – you will know that one of the biggest challenges you face is getting other people to come along for the ride.

As a leader, you can have the best ideas in the world, but they simply will not gain traction if you cannot get other people to buy in. Attempts to launch a new piece of technology will fail if staff refuse to actually use it. New product offerings will stagnate if sales teams are not prepared to introduce them to key customers. A new marketing strategy will falter without engagement from people right across the business. Even an innocent bid to introduce a new roster in the staff kitchen will be met with the icy winds of inaction and cynicism unless you get buy-in from the right people first. Leaders who work hard to build genuine buy-in not only succeed in getting their ideas off the ground; they create willing and enthusiastic champions of those ideas. Buy-in is the thing that makes and drives highly engaged, creative and motivated teams – and it can be enough to give your company a real edge in the market.

Mindset makes a difference

In 2015, the Economist Intelligence Unit, in conjunction with strategy consulting firm BTS, conducted a global study of more than 200 senior business leaders in large companies. The study found (see breakouts below) that there is a significant correlation between business performance and high levels of buy-in throughout the organisation to the company’s strategy and direction.

It is important for leaders to balance their desire to drive outcomes with the need to bring others along on the journey. Leaders need to demonstrate a genuine respect for the impact that their ideas can have on key stakeholders, and be willing to listen with an open mind. This is not about drawing on a set of influencing tricks and tactics. Rather, it hinges on a mindset – a choice to be inclusive and to adopt an attitude of curiosity, creativity and a commitment to the best possible outcome. This also means that building buy-in cannot be an afterthought; something that is simply outsourced to the internal communications team once a strategy is set in stone. It should go hand in hand with the development of any initiative.

Tackle the big questions

Any leadership team getting together to work on their next big strategy should also be asking: whose buy-in do we need for this to succeed? Why? And how do we get them involved? Asking these questions early creates an opportunity to invite key stakeholders to the table sooner rather than later. The very act of inviting potential naysayers into the tent early can turn them into powerful allies.

In addition, leaders need to be great at painting an evocative picture for people that they can relate to and feel excited about. Buy-in starts with an emotional response. After all, it is the heart that determines what the mind will focus on. One of the most powerful ways to engage people at an emotional level is through the use of stories. A well-chosen and carefully told story can help your audience to feel a problem or opportunity with empathy, by portraying a scenario they can relate to themselves. For a story to be effective, your audience has to believe the story and see themselves in it. Get that right, and the path to buy-in becomes a whole lot easier.

Simon Dowling is the author of Work With Me: How to Get People to Buy Into Your Ideas. An expert in making collaboration happen, he runs workshops, coaches leadership teams and regularly speaks at conferences.



The survey findings


What firms do to increase employee buy-in

The Economist Intelligence Unit-BTS survey of 228 business leaders found that while firms typically find it difficult to drive buy-in of strategic direction among middle- and lower-ranked employees, the top-performing companies (defined by those reporting above-average profitability relative to peers) regularly achieve widespread buy-in at all levels of the organisation. Leading firms accomplish this by following these tactics:

1. Ensuring that managers work closely with their direct reports to convince them of the feasibility and benefits of the corporate strategy.

2. Defining expectations clearly and readily rewarding good work with both public recognition and opportunities for further education, training and advancement.

3. Fostering an environment where all voices matter, with leaders who actively seek out fresh perspectives.

Actions of the most successful companies

The survey concludes that the most successful companies:

1. Make a consistent commitment to promote company strategy at every level of the organisation, not just at the executive levels.

2. Work systematically with mid- and lower-level employees to ensure that everyone is convinced that a strategy will have a personal benefit to them, ensure a better environment and lead to overall success.

3. Recognise the importance of mid-level leader buy-in and promote it through encouraged collaboration with peers outside of their business unit, function, and/or chain of command.

4. Offer well-defined expectations and reward exemplary work with a variety of incentives such as compensation, career growth, awards and recognition, and new developmental opportunities.

5. Show openness to all forms of employee feedback and foster an environment in which employees at all levels feel that their opinions count.

[Source: Mindsets: Gaining Buy-in to Strategy, an Economist Intelligence Unit research program sponsored by BTS.]