Seven steps to selling your idea to the boss

December 19, 2014
Contact: Greta Guest

ANN ARBOR—Middle managers often know best when certain practices or products are ripe for change in an organization, but can struggle selling their ideas up the chain of command.

Sue Ashford, professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, details smart steps managers can take to get their ideas considered and implemented in a new Harvard Business Review article.

She and co-author James Detert, associate professor of management and organizations at Cornell University, give specific success stories as real-life examples.

“Most middle managers don’t just want to hold jobs,” Ashford said. “They want to have an impact, to make change. Whether it’s to make the organization better or to raise their stature within the company, the ability to sell issues up the organization can be a real differentiator.”

Based on their recent research, Ashford and Detert said the odds of affecting change increase if you take these steps:

  • Tailor your pitch: Get to know the goals, values and knowledge of your audience—and tailor your pitch accordingly.
  • Frame the issue: Explain how this idea fits into the organization’s big picture. Frame it as a positive opportunity, not a response to a threat.
  • Manage emotions on both sides: Passion is fine, but it must be regulated so it doesn’t become anger.
  • Get the timing right: Be sensitive to what your audience has going on, and wait for the right moment.
  • Involve others: Having allies not only helps drive buy-in, but gives you wider knowledge.
  • Adhere to norms: Know what kinds of data your company’s leaders prefer to use and how they like to receive it.
  • Suggest solutions: If you’re going to bring up problems, suggest specific fixes.

“Even the best issue-sellers don’t win every time, but our research shows managers who use these tactics have greater success than those who don’t,” Ashford said.


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