Jayashantha Jayawardhana offers insights into conveying your thoughts to the very top

When the finance executive of a luxury boutique hotel felt that switching to solar power would drastically reduce the electricity bill and enhance its reputation as an eco resort, he wondered why not. He also realised that such a switch could justify charging guests a hefty premium.

The hotel’s beachfront location ensured that it received plenty of sunlight all day long, which was ideal for the project. The executive knew that the press would be interested in such a major green initiative.

It was a brilliant idea that made perfect sense from every angle. But the catch was that the property belonged to a group of hotels owned and managed by a well-known public listed company.

Switching to solar power would require substantial capital investment – and such strategic investments needed the approval of the CFO, CEO and board of directors. Given his position in a complex vertical hierarchy, the executive could hardly present his proposition direct to senior management.

But he was too positive, optimistic and determined to give up on his idea.

So the executive mulled over a feasible plan to bring his big idea to the board’s attention. He knew that the finance manager whom he reported to would take little interest in his proposition but suspected that his GM would like to hear about it – the GM could direct it to the chief engineer who was a VP as well – and through him, to the CFO, CEO and board.

Armed with feasibility studies to bolster his proposition, the executive argued a compelling case for the switch to solar power. He knew he’d hammered it home when the GM praised him for coming up with the idea and promised that he would present it to the board at the next meeting. The GM kept his word, and with the support of the chief engineer, persuaded senior management and the board to sign off on the required capital investment.

Because this example is one that I concocted, I could easily create the perfect ending. But in real corporate life and given all the political undercurrents of office politics, more often than not reality doesn’t run such a smooth course. However, some small fry do succeed in having their ideas or concerns heard by those in the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy. Thus, the groundwork for transformative change is laid.

Writing in the January-February 2015 edition of HBR, Susan J. Ashford and James R. Detert – two prominent management scholars in the US who are credited with introducing the concept of ‘issue selling’ into the academic discourse more than two decades ago – identified some preconditions for people lower in the hierarchy to speak up successfully.

Among them are those who feel psychologically safe in the organisation and care enough about the issue to invest energy to sell an idea – and they perhaps count the most. In the same article, the writers also delineated a practical framework consisting of seven steps through which even lowly executives can secure the buy in of their superiors. Here are some guidelines.

TAILOR YOUR PITCH It is all about selling. So you should arm yourself with an arsenal of facts and figures, and craft your pitch to include them in the right order. In my hypothetical scenario, because the finance executive got his pitch right he could drive his point home.

FRAME THE ISSUE It’s absolutely essential for you to point out clearly how your proposal fits into the bigger picture. An idea that is linked to a major organisational cause is highly likely to interest senior executives.

MANAGE EMOTIONS While it’s imperative to be passionate about your pitch, it is also important to turn up the heat to the right degree. And it’s equally important to be authentic without being melodramatic.

TIME IT RIGHT Decide on the right moment to pitch for it and sit tight till it arrives. For instance, it’ll be ideal to propose your idea about creating a paperless office soon after a discussion about going digital.

INVOLVE OTHERS Sometimes, it may be good to have others endorse your idea. If you lack the relevant expertise or experience yourself, bring in an expert from within or outside the organisation to back your claim. But first ensure there won’t be any conflicts of interest.

FOLLOW NORMS It’s best to follow the right protocols and norms when presenting your ideas to senior management. But at times, you may have to be creative and circumvent certain norms that may be blocking your path.

OFFER SOLUTIONS The last step is perhaps most important. The top brass usually prefers to listen to thoughtful solutions rather than plaintive wails about problems. Be practical and consider the issue at hand from as many perspectives as possible before you decide to present proposals to solve it.

Perhaps you won’t have to keep your big idea to yourself forever, after all