How to Get Your Boss to Say “Yes,” Part 1

The ability to sell an idea or project to your boss is critical to your success. If you can’t get your boss’s approval when you need it, you are not going to go very far in your career. In this three-part series I share six steps for doing it more effectively. In this post, I cover the first two steps. (You can find Part 2 here and Part 3 here.)

When I was in corporate management, I spent a great deal of time listening to proposals. Those doing the pitching usually needed my approval to proceed with their project. Frankly, I was amazed at how poorly most people do in these kinds of situations.

An "Approved" Rubber Stamp - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #6618875

Photo courtesy of ©

In fairness, most of us never received any formal training in this important skill. As a result, we flounder about, not knowing why it seems so difficult to get to “yes.”In this post and the next two, I want to provide you with a few shortcuts, based on my thirty-plus years in business. Hopefully, this will shorten your learning curve and help you get to “yes” faster with your boss.

Here are six keys I have used successfully to get my boss to say “yes” to my proposals.

Step 1: Understand the Customer

The first and most important key to getting to “yes” is to focus on your boss’s needs not yours. Everything else in this post is a footnote to this point.

No one cares about your needs. Okay, maybe I’m overstating it; a few people care. But, certainly everyone is more interested in having their needs met than yours. That’s just reality. The sooner you accept it, the faster you will get to “yes.”

Like it or not, you are in sales (everyone is). And for a salesperson to be effective, he must show the prospect how his product will solve the prospect’s problem or meet the prospect’s need.

The same is true for the manager seeking approval on an important project.

The boss doesn’t care how your proposal will make your life easier.

He’s concerned about his needs and the needs of the company. So you must frame your proposal in these terms.

Most top managers have two basic needs. They want to:

  1. Grow their organization.
  2. Increase their profitability.

Whether they are a private company or a public one, this is the ticket to their personal success. It is even true in non-profits. If your proposal promises to do either, you’ve got their ear. If not, you’re likely dead before you start.

Middle managers have similar needs. However, in addition, they have a need to improve their image with their supervisor(s). They also have a need to meet their unit’s goals.

So before you schedule an appointment to pitch your proposal, you must answer the question:

“How is my proposal going to help my boss achieve his or her goals?”

If you can’t answer that question, you’re not ready to make the pitch.

For example, when I was a COO, one of my vice presidents wanted to add two graphic designers to his unit. With salary, benefits, and other overhead, this was going to cost about $100,000 a year.

However, rather than lead with this, he said, “Boss, great news. I figured out a way to save the company $100,000 a year.” For me, that translated into additional profit, so I was immediately interested.

He then explained how we were already spending about $200,000 a year in outsourcing cover designs for a particular category of books. He convinced me that we could cut our expenses in half by bringing this function in-house.

He made it a “no-brainer” because he showed me how his proposal met my needs.

Step 2: Commit to Success

When I had a boss, I had a basic rule: Don’t take a swing unless I am confident I will hit the ball. The goal here wasn’t to avoid risk, but to make sure I was fully committed before I stepped up to the plate.

I would encourage you to do the same. Don’t make the pitch unless you intend to make the sale. Your credibility as a manager is at stake—with your boss, your peers, and your direct reports.

For example, I used to work for a guy who couldn’t sell his boss (eventually my boss) anything.

This was unfortunate for me, because my proposals often exceeded his approval limit. He would then have to take my proposal to his boss for approval.

In the beginning, he enthusiastically approved my proposals and promised to get his boss’ approval. However, almost always, he would come back with his tail between his legs, mumbling about how unreasonable his boss was.

Eventually, he started procrastinating going to his boss. He knew he would get rebuffed and didn’t want to appear powerless to me. As a result, my proposals would languish on his desk, waiting for an approval that would never come.

After about six months of this behavior, his boss sensed my frustration. He then asked me to start reporting directly to him.

Frankly, based on my previous boss’s comments, I dreaded the prospect of reporting to the big boss. I assumed he was an unreasonable, capricious tyrant.

However, I found him to be exactly the opposite. He was a great listener and sincerely wanted to help me. He made quick decisions and never impeded my progress.

I worked for him for three years. My ability to get quick decisions from him enhanced my credibility, both with him and my direct reports. They knew they could count on me to get the approvals they needed to accomplish their goals—and mine—in a timely manner.

The key here is to choose your battles and prepare thoroughly.

Eventually, you will develop a reputation for getting things done. This reputation will actually make it possible to pre-sell your boss before you ever say one word.

He’ll be thinking, If Sally is recommending this, it is worth serious consideration. I can be confident she has thought it through and asked the tough questions.

In part 2 of this series, I will explain how to create a bullet-proof proposal that will make it easier for your boss to give you the approval you need.

Questions: Have you ever thought of your boss as your customer? What are his or her needs? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Jbadgerble

    Think of others as my customer, my boss, my peers, my customers. What I am learning (real time) is that this takes intentionally, especially when so much needs to be done as part of a high growth new company. It is a matter of thought, and to me it is a matter of my heart. Will I see them with the goal to help their success (within my role and responsibilities),
    will I walk in their shoes? Or will I focus on my needs and not see them at all?

  • Joe Lalonde

    I have, I believe, thought of my boss as a customer. It was just subconsciously. 

    As my boss is the CFO of our company, his needs are to see that the company is turning a profit and that departments are profitable. I do my best to meet those needs of his.

  • Dave Anderson

    I’ve trained young engineers and told them they had to be able to communicate well if they ever wanted to go beyond entry level work.  The reason- their ability to pitch projects.

    It doesn’t matter if you have a great idea.  You must be able to communicate how that idea will help others reach their goals.  If you can not do that, the idea will languish.

    Know their needs and then commit to answering those needs.  Great and timely article Michael.

  • JeremiahZeiset

    We are selfish by nature and the reality is that many people can only think about their own reasons for wanting something when approaching their boss. What you are talking about isn’t only a business principle, but also a biblical principle – concerning yourself with others is what Jesus taught, and it’s effective. 

    Thank-you for another great post!

    Jeremiah Zeiset

    LIFE SENTENCE Publishing

    • Michael Hyatt

      I agree. It really is a biblical approach.

      • Jennifer Fonseca

        I agree. Consider others over ourselves is what Jesus taught, and a principle which works. If we focus more on cooperation over competition for the acceptance of our proposals or approval of our employer, it would serve us well.

    • Michele Cushatt

       Great insight, Jeremiah.

      • JeremiahZeiset

        Thank-you. We are blessed in so many ways to know Him – He truly is a wonderful teacher.

  • Tumi Mogorosi

    It is a deliberate action, and its not that easy, it takes practice. Its definitely an area that needs improvement for my development. Working in the public sector where often your boss’s boss is not in a position to ‘sense your frustration’ – I would be interested to know how one can deal with that? Especially in politically charged environments…? Having gotten an enthusiastic yes from my boss, how do I help the process along to get a yes one level up. 

    • Michael Hyatt

      I will share some more on this in my next post, but essentially, you have to equip your boss with the tools he needs to sell his boss. Thanks.

  • Joe Abraham

    Awesome post, Michael!

    Sometimes we confuse straightforwardness with shrewdness.  It applies in the area of proposals too. As in every case of relationships, people get interested when they see ‘their’ benefit in it. And to present it in such a way isn’t cheating; it’s telling them another side of the story which they probably like! And it generates results. That’s the best sell we can make in almost every sphere of life including proposals, family, and friendships.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I agree, Joe. It works equally well in the other contexts you mentioned too.

  • Ben Berson

    Michael, you made my day!
    What an easy way of unscrambling what was to me A jigsaw puzzle!

    • Jim Martin

      Ben, you are right.  The way Michael laid this out in this post was so helpful.  About half way through the post, I thought about how much sense this approach makes.  (I can remember trying other approaches in the past that years later make no sense at all.)

  • Todd Liles

    The boss is the customer, no question. I take th is approach when I feel, or know, that the client needs something different. It keeps me focused on what’s in his best interest. This allows us to tackle the problem, and avoids tons of bad feelings.

  • Kumar Gauraw

    Absolutely phenomenal concept. When preparedness meets the opportunity, success happens. Treat the boss as customer, be prepared and make sure “Don’t make the pitch unless you intend to make the sale.”I didn’t believe in this concept for long time (since I didn’t know). But since last a few years, I have done that and I generally succeed, not just for boss, but anybody from who I want something, I need to treat that person as my customer and get to the ‘Yes”.Thank you for this wonderful series, Mr. Hyatt. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post!

    • Joy Groblebe

      Kumar – I love that quote, “When success meets opportunity, success happens.”  October is ridiculously busy for me this year.   I think I’m going to make that my motto for the month.  :)

      • Kumar Gauraw

        Thank you, Joy! And for helping you get your motto of the month, now you owe me a cookie :-)

  • Tim

    A timely article! For a church, it could be morphed to: how does my proposal help my boss/pastor/bishop/superintendent improve our mission and expand the Kingdom.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, exactly. Thanks.

  • Laura Rolands

    Excellent points.  This reminds me of advice I received very early in my career… when solving a problem, always suggest a solution to your boss rather than expecting them to tell you the right answer.  Even if they don’t love your answer, it is a better starting point.  Thanks for all of your great posts!

    • Joy Groblebe

      Laura – 
      I’ve found the same thing.  They hear problems that need answers all day long.  Starting with a solution that benefits them will definitely make you stand out from the crowd.

    • Michele Cushatt

      Great advice, Laura. The tendency is to point out problems, because they’re easy to identify. But coming up with potential solutions takes time and thought. But doing so will show the boss you care about the result.

  • Joey Espinosa

    Very helpful. I’ve actually been trying to sell some higher-ups on an idea I have, to develop a comprehensive mentoring program in this community. I’ll definitely be “borrowing” your ideas!

  • Molly Matthews

    I agree!  You are spot-on that most bosses want to be managed and will respond well.  Just wrote a Post on a related topic, “Does Your Boss Think You Are a Good Parent?

  • Dan Erickson

    I work in education at the college level as a faculty member.  I agree with your ideas here, and I’ve had decent results as a faculty member in getting the agreement of my direct supervisor: the dean.  However, in education, the hierarchy is one in which getting your boss to say yes, in many cases, is not a guaranteed yes.  The dean then has to get the VP to say yes, who may have to get the president to say yes.  So getting a final “yes” often depends on how competent the boss is at the communication concepts you’ve written about.

    • Michael Hyatt

      It also depends on how well you equip him to sell on your behalf. I’ll talk about that in my next post. Thanks.

      • Dan Erickson

        Absolutely, Michael.  I’ll look forward to reading your suggestions in the next post.

  • LivewithFlair

    So timely today! I have to pitch a curriculum redesign to my department head on Wednesday. I decided to read her textbook and change some of my proposal wording to match her favorite phrases. I’m realizing the importance of building rapport through language. Finding common ground with her could make all the difference.  That’s one way to accomplish #1. Show understanding through shared language.

    • Michele Cushatt

      Learning to speak another’s language is key to connection and progress. With spouses, children and friendships, too!

  • Alan

    When our thought process considers selling the benefits of the project (helping the boss reach his or her goals) and not the features (how it will help me) it is amazing how much more intelligent the boss has become.  Oddly enough, the same process is what works when we use it to sell our outside customers.

    Great start.

    • Michele Cushatt

       Yes. Lead with benefits, not features.

  • John Richardson

    A few years back when I was at a National Speakers Association event in LA I had the opportunity to pitch a panel of six very influential people about an idea or concept. On the first round, I had 30 seconds, on the second round I had 8 seconds.
    This panel included TV executives, movie producers, and publishers, both online and print. It was very similar to the TV show, Shark Tank. After your pitch, they would give you a thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down.
    There were 20 people like myself who had won a chance to pitch
    One by one we faced the panel. It was brutal. This was one tough crowd. 

    When my turn came, I gave it my all for 30 seconds. I had the product message down and even used a prop. When my time was up… I had five thumbs down, and one thumb sideways. I was devastated.

    Yet watching the entire pitch session was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. Over 80% of the responses were thumbs down. Most of the contestants were seasoned speakers, so the pitches were very good. The secret was to refine your message and your unique selling proposition down so well that it clicked.

    One of the gals who was in the audience talked about her experience pitching the previous year. She had pitched a self published book to the panel with a unique twist that happened to resonate. Through this panel, her book was featured twice on Oprah where she was a guest speaker. She went from zero to hero overnight.

    My suggestion for pitching your boss would be the same as with my experience with the pitch group. Refine the idea down to a 30 second pitch and a 8 second sound bite. Run it through a mastermind group or other small group. Ask the question… what’s in it for them. Try different ideas until you come up with something that pops. If you can say it well in 30 seconds, you have a good chance at success.

    • Michael Hyatt

      That is an incredible story, John. AND, some good advice. Thanks.

      • John Richardson

        One thing I learned through the experience was to stay away from cliches. In a panel like this, cliches are almost always negative. People have heard them way too many times. Coming up with something new and unique is often the winning strategy.

        • Jim Martin

          John, I appreciate your very helpful comment.  What a great suggestion!

  • Dustin W. Stout

    As a consultant and entrepreneur, I always think of my boss’ as customers (or full-time clients). I have to admit though, I haven’t always been the best at selling my big idea. This was a great reminder Michael– I can’t wait for the next two parts in the series!

  • TNeal

    You’re first point reminds me of what authors need to keep in mind–their readers. We write for the reader’s pleasure and benefit rather than a book sale. If we do the former, the latter follows.

    • Michele Cushatt

       I was thinking the same. Blog readers, book readers, etc.

  • Joshua Brandon Jones

    Thanks Michael, I’ve needed to hear this.  I’m learning this the farther I go in business and ministry.  I appreciate the input and i’m already thinking about how to put this to use.

  • Kyle

    This is a great post. My friend @bcmtim:twitter linked this on twitter and I’m glad he did.

    You’re right on when you say everyone is a salesperson. The thing I’ve always tried to remember, whether pitching to my boss, my family, or my friends, is that the person I am talking to is the main character in his or her own story. Everyone wants to know the benefit for them.

    Thanks Michael – looking forward to part two. 

    • Jim Martin

      Kyle, I like the way you express this truth.  “…the person I am talking to is the main character in his or her own story.”  So true!

  • Cherry Odelberg

    This post helped me. It shows clearly the steps of a rising leader – a “ya can’t keep a good man down,” sort of  person. 
    The point that hit home for me personally? “Don’t make the pitch unless you intend to make the sale. Your credibility as a manager is at stake…”
    My credibility has suffered when I slink off, rejected or thinking negative thoughts about the insight or IQ of the one who did not approve my stellar and essential idea. 

    • Jim Martin

      Thanks for what you express, Cherry, especially in the last paragraph.  You remind the rest of us that by our behavior, we can damage our own credibility. 

  • Scotidomeij

    Been thinking about this regarding a single mom ministry. Realized I needed to think about ministry outreach in terms of three emotional stages that everyone experiences when life interrupts our dreams: hurting, healing, healthy.  

  • Mauricio Antunes

    Some people think that the way to “make it happen” is to do in such a way that the boss ” thinks” that the idea was his/hers. I never liked this idea because it assumes that you always work for a person with some issues.
    As a marketing strategy, this is a basic concept of “serving to be served”. It is a great way, not only to accomplish your professional goals, but a way of life.

  • Robert Jacobs

    Wow, that is a great way to approach pitching an idea to a boss. I never really asked my self how it would meet his or her needs. Although I feel that I present the facts very, I will add this to my arsenal.

  • Matthew Reed

    Isn’t it one of our roles as an employee to think of whomever we are working with as our customer? My boss, my peers, my actual paying customers? 
    When we treat others as someone to serve rather than someone who serves us ‘yes’ seems to show up a lot more often. 

    I like the series here @mhyatt:disqus . When my ‘boss’ stopped saying yes, to even my best and most lucrative ideas, I knew it was time to move on. 

  • Ramon B. Nuez Jr.

    Yes. But only recently did I start thinking of my boss as a customer.

    Before that I always thought of him as a boss. So I did not always approach our meetings with solutions to his issues.

    But when I changed my perspective. That is when the relationship changed. And I began to provide real value — to him.

    • Jim Martin

      Really liked the way you expressed the last paragraph.  You say that you changed your perspective and that is when the relationship changed.  Good reminder that we might look at what we are capable of changing, instead of always waiting for the other to change.

      • Ramon B. Nuez Jr.

        Thanks Jim.

        Yes, it’s a matter of stepping outside of your comfort zone. I think as employees we are taught to stay in our box. And just do our job.

        But it’s only when you step outside that real change begins. And it’s crucial to take baby steps. For many of us stepping outside the box must be relearned. So it’s a terrifying prospect.

        It’s a muscle that has not been used in a very long time.

        • Jim Martin

          Great point about the need to take baby steps.  In doing so, we often make more progress than we realize.

    • Michele Cushatt

      It’s such an important shift, isn’t it? A boss is often someone to fear, manipulate or resent. A customer is someone to value and serve. A complete change in perspective.

      • Ramon B. Nuez Jr.

        It’s a drastic shift. 

        I have found that once you treat your boss as a customer — you become a source of solutions. Instead of an employee that is kept busy.

  • Dallon Christensen

    Point #2 is really powerful, because it forces us to prepare. I know I have “winged it” too much and not truly done the preparation I need to make my point and present the benefits to my other party. I equate this to all of the game video NFL quarterbacks watch to prepare for games. The reason a great QB like Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers can make the big play is because of all of the up-front preparation. 

    I know that as I work with new customers (my bosses, as I’m self-employed), I need to keep preparing and ensuring I can put myself into the shoes of my customers and address what they want to hear.

    • Michele Cushatt

      So true, Dallon. Most customers don’t care what you have to offer until they feel like you’ve taken the time to listen and understand.

  • Michele Cushatt

    Since I’m self-employed, I don’t have a “boss” per se, but I believe event hosts, coaching clients, readers, and conference attendees/staff are the ones I work for. I try to put myself in their shoes and imagine what they most need, then work to meet their needs. I picture myself as a salesperson and customer service rep, rolled into one.

    • Ramon B. Nuez Jr.

      Yep. Yep. And yep.

      If you provide value above most — then you become a go to person.

  • kimanzi constable

    I’ve been self-employed for 12 years but I do remember the says of having a boss. I think things would have gone better if I took this approach Michael.

  • Anjali Deshpande

    Good insight into “what the Boss wants to hear”!
    I have experienced this quite a few times and kept quiet when I knew this proposal won’t make it. And I’ve been surprised when some of the things proposed  got through quite smoothly.

  • Frank

    i try to focus on my job and avoid to see my boss because my boss judges his staff according to their performance .so my boss is not my customer

  • Steve Martin

    How to Get Your Boss to Say “Yes,” 
    Tell him/her you’d like a cut in pay??

  • Ristlin

    I love coming here and finding a post that is always relevant to what’s going on either at work or in life. Awesome advice! 

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  • Foster Boamah

     I am a Civil Servant, photography is my hobby, My Boss asked me to present a training Proposal for me to trained in photography since i like the job. pls can you help me to write training proposal

  • Sola

    Wow! This is soul-stirring and insightful. I came searching for something else and stumbled on this article and I can say I have learnt something new… My boss is my customer and I should know his needs and provide means to meeting them. 
    I never saw it in this light before… thank you for sharing… 

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  • Ruma_manandhar

    Good ideas!