Gain Executive Buy-In with Strategic Influencing

Posted by
November 17, 2020

Topic: Strategic Influence

Written by Karin Blair


“I don’t know how to speak strategy.” These were the words of a recent client as we began our work together. 

Erika had an upcoming presentation to executives to make a case for key areas of focus and investment for her function. She wanted to be credible and influential to gain their buy‑in. 

She's a highly capable and successful commercial leader, with several key professional attributes:

  • A track record of delivering results through her teams
  • Great business acumen
  • Instinct that has guided her well throughout her career

In the past, as long as she delivered her revenue numbers, she was left alone to perform her role. But now she’s in a position where she had to package up and sell her intuition internally to gain the support and buy‑in of senior executives. And while she's already highly influential in many situations, this strategic influencing was newer terrain for Erika.  

What Makes Strategic Influencing Hard?

  1. Self doubt. Influencing senior executives can be fraught with anxiety and doubt—different than direct reports, peers, or even customers. The power of their position alone can leave the most confident feeling insecure. A single executive interaction can feel like it will make or break your career. Add to this the complexity of seeking to influence leaders about strategic decisions and direction, and the stakes continue to rise. 
  2. Uncertainty. Not only might this be an area where you aren’t as confident in your own capabilities, but to lead strategically is often to be out on a limb, advocating for an unknowable and uncertain future. There isn’t a singular “right answer” when setting strategy, but it sure feels like there are wrong ones … particularly with the benefit of hindsight. Leading strategically requires confidence and belief—in yourself, your vision—and accepting that you can’t see the whole picture. No one can.
  3. High stakes. The pressure goes up, the stakes feel high and your confidence in your ability to effectively influence is at risk of plummeting. And yet, to lead is to influence the actions and decisions of others


So if you're a leader, there's no doubt that you're an influencer. What do you know about the situations and people that you've been able to influence? Is there any pattern to where you're often effective—the types of people, situations, both? 

Take a moment to reflect and capture your current strengths and influencing practices that contribute to your success. 

Then consider the following:

  • How can you leverage and extend those strengths for strategic influencing? 
  • What will you need to add to be effective at strategic influencing? It may help to break this down into who (the specific executives) and what (the specific strategic decisions and direction).

Strengthening Your Strategic Influencing

Below, discover how Erika gained executive buy‑in by learning to “speak strategy” to strengthen her strategic influencing.

Learning to “speak strategy”

As a highly effective sales leader, Erika has a robust “influencing toolkit” and plenty of strengths to leverage. Influencing in general, even to executives, was not her biggest obstacle. The growth area for Erika was not in ”who“ she was influencing, but in ”what“ she was trying to influence them to support. 

Our work was to increase her confidence in both her message and her capacity to “speak strategy” and “be strategic.” We packaged up her ideas and recommendations into a strategic story that would be credible with the executives.  

We started our journey to “speaking strategy” by understanding the priority initiatives and investments she was recommending. Remember that Erika has great instinct and business acumen—so I knew there would be a strong logic behind her recommendations. We gave them some context and explored the why behind these initiatives. Before long, a list of activities and investments became a set of higher‑level strategic objectives or priorities.  

Defining the “change agenda”

Erika elevated out of the details to outline the 3‑5 changes that would be most important to drive her function for the coming years. Strategic objectives are a way to “speak strategy.” Done well, they tell us how to get from where we are to where we need to be in a focused way. In essence, they define the “change agenda” for the business or function over a longer time horizon. Erika’s instincts told her where she needed to take the function. We captured her vision and distilled it into a succinct description of that desired future state—another core part of a strategic vocabulary.  

Vision statements are tricky territory. They often are too vague or general to meaningfully guide the organization or demonstrate any meaningful choice in the direction set. If you haven’t outlined a future that someone would say NO to, you haven’t created anything new. Erika and I worked to create a vision statement that had enough specificity to demonstrate her ability to anticipate the future needs of the market and business.

Putting things in context

From there we began to put some context around her vision and those strategic objectives. We knew what she wanted to do, but to effectively “speak strategy” we needed to include the strategic rationale behind her recommendations. What made these the most important areas of focus?  

We looked at the current state of the business and began outlining both strengths and weaknesses. A quick way to lose credibility with executives is to deny or sugarcoat your current reality. This may seem both counterintuitive and risky. Our instinct is to minimize the challenges and highlight everything that is going well to demonstrate our effectiveness as leaders. But we can’t change what we can’t see, or won’t accept.  

By making explicit the challenges of the current state, and presenting a clear plan to change it, will increase your credibility—and in turn, your influence—with the execs. Executives care more about your ability to derive business and strategic insight than your ability to “get it right” at any moment in time.  

Crafting your strategic story

In Erika’s case, the key issues and obstacles preventing more consistent results were clear. And the case for change was quite evident. Her strategic rationale began to emerge through a robust perspective on both the current and future state of the business, market, and competition. Now we were left with one of the more artful parts of strategy. How to tell her strategic story clearly and compellingly? 

There are countless frameworks and templates for outlining the core ingredients of any good strategic story: 

  • Vision
  • Context
  • Objectives
  • Expected results
  • Initiatives

But these templates will only take you so far. And at times they are more hindrance than help. It's the strategic narrative that you design—how you put those ingredients together to make your case—that matters most. Each narrative is a distinct and unique creation that starts with clarity on the fundamental messages you need to get across and is told in a way that moves your audience to action. Erika defined hers with the question, “If the executives take away only three things from your presentation, what do they need to know or understand?“

By the end of our engagement, Erika felt much more confident in her ability to “speak strategy”—rooting her message in a multi‑year horizon, with clear strategic logic and rationale behind her recommendations. She engaged in the creative process of applying these well‑known principles to her distinct situation. 

Erika began to trust in

  1.  Her instinct around creating the future of her function 
  2. The clarity and strategic robustness of her message 

She began to see herself not only as a great results leader but also as a strategic leader. Her confident, influential self reemerged. As a result, Erika received full endorsement of her investment recommendations and a highly engaged executive discussion on the most substantive issues before the business. One leader said, “I gained more insight into this business than I have in any previous review.” She became fluent in “speaking strategy” and was able to effectively influence the strategic direction of her organization. 


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