Selling Your Vision When You’re Not in Charge

I once worked for a boss who lacked vision. I should say he lacked a single vision because he changed direction frequently. The team never knew what flavor-of-the-month program was coming next. It was frustrating!

Ever the activator, I was determined to build momentum in my department even if my division was stuck in neutral. I would bring my boss requests, complete with the necessary supporting information. Invariably, he would ask me to rerun the numbers.

When I came back, he would want it rerun again, and again. By the time he approved it, the opportunity was lost, and he would blame me for missing it.

Infuriating as that was, it taught me important lessons about an invaluable leadership skill: selling your vision when you’re not in charge.

Whether your company has a strong vision or not, as a leader you should have a vision for your own area of responsibility. At some point, you’ll have to sell that vision up the line, to a director, C-level officer, or even the board of directors.

Here are five steps I’ve used over my 40-plus years in business to win approval for my vision.

1. Commit to Success.

When I had a boss, I had a basic rule: Don’t take a swing unless I’m confident I’ll 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 encourage you to do the same. Don’t make the pitch unless you intend to make the sale. Your credibility is at stake—with your boss, your peers, and your direct reports.

2. Understand the customer.

The first and most important key for getting to “yes” is to focus on your boss or board’s needs, not yours. They listen to the same radio station as the rest of us, and the song they hear has just two verses:

Achieve their own vision and goals for the organization.
Do so while improving profitability and other success metrics.

If they can hum along with your vision, you’ve got their ear. If not, you’re likely dead before you start. So before you schedule a time to pitch your proposal, answer the question: How is my vision 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.

3. Think through your presentation.

In my experience, the No. 1 reason people don’t get to yes with their boss is because they haven’t done their homework. As a result, their approach is full of holes.

Make your pitch clear and concise, beginning with a simple statement of what you want to accomplish. Briefly state your rationale, why this matters. Show the financial impact, with documentation. And demonstrate the impact. Don’t ramble. If they want more information, they’ll ask for it.

4. Anticipate objections.

Play the devil’s advocate. List the likely questions and objections, and then answer for each. A few points should be sufficient for each objection. I used to type this up on a separate document that I took to the meeting with my boss. I kept it in my folder for reference.

5. Make the pitch.

Now you’re finally ready to sell. First and foremost, maintain eye contact. Any documents you place in front of the boss or board are intended to be a “talking points” list rather than a narrative. You should be familiar enough with your Vision Script that you can stay focused and read the room. That will let you know when you are done. If your boss approves your recommendation, say thank you and that’s all. Don’t reopen a successfully closed presentation.

All bosses have one thing in common: they dislike surprises. When selling up, timing is everything. Don’t surprise them by blurting out your idea in a hallway conversation or, worse, in a meeting with others present. Schedule a time when your boss is likely to be the most receptive. Commit to success, and make your pitch. More often than not, you’ll make the sale!