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Board Buy-In. Maths or Magic?

There is more than one zeitgeist that Dragon’s Den taps into. In a world where everything is up for grabs as entertainment, it’s all about the pitch and we watch fascinated as contestants hit or miss. In a world where you are only as good as your last business decision, data is our security blanket. Show me, inspire me – and you’d better prove it to me while you’re at it.

Whatever your discipline, your Board is the gatekeeper to your ambitions. How do you get a disparate group of stakeholders, with a whole palette of perspectives and internal tensions to buy into YOUR vision? Should you drown them in data or wow them with magic?

Our network has been asking us these questions with greater frequency this year and so last week we hosted an evening where we could all share advice and best practice, with three speakers from very different organisations: Daniel Keller, Director Brand Strategy & Experience, Orange; Ian Duncan, Global Brand Leader PwC and Mairi Brewis, Head of Strategy, BBC TV

What emerged were ten learnings to help your Board buy into your vision – and the mix of these will depend entirely on the particular culture of the organisation.

1. Context, context, context

Putting your proposal in a business context and showing how it amplifies the business strategy, makes it easier for stakeholders to buy. Then you can very quickly segue into the roadmap to help you all get there.

2. Tell a great story

A compelling story will unite and inspire. Introduce a bit of theatre – as dramatic as an immersive experience or as simply effective as a vox pop. Someone asked if he should speak in the language of the CMO or the CFO – in other words err on the side of emotion-led vision or rational data? The answer is neither: always speak in the language of the user. And while you’re at it…

3. Bring the user into the room

Your board may have completely different perspectives on what the objective is, but everyone will pay attention to your customer – internal or external. Your best data will often demonstrate the gap between what we think we are and how our customers perceive us. It can also give us clues to how to address this through creating better and more useful experiences for them.

4. Look beyond the horizon

You need to build a case for change – and sometimes that case isn’t apparent to the naked eye. But the world will never be as slow as it is now, so that change will come sooner than everyone thinks. Your customer insights could give a big clue here, but so can your stakeholders. Judge the appetite, recognize the right time and then create the opportunity.

5. Paint a value picture

The net result of your pitch will mean a cost to the business, but cost is only an issue when you can’t see value. So get everyone to focus on the bigger picture, and the value that your project will bring. Some of the more intangible decisions CEOs are asked to make involve personal risk, so they need reaffirmation with data. But they still really need to get excited about the opportunity. And don’t forget to allow them to show that.

6. Manage the risk

The buck stops with the Board so reduce the risk, demonstrate the world post-launch, and the steps that will get you there. Better yet, set up a pilot, capture the results and learnings and then demonstrate how you will scale.

7. An on-board Board

Boards are diverse and complex, everyone has a nuanced perspective. Understand what these are and start to socialize your goals with them one-on-one. Leaders want to leave a legacy and so you should consider the outcomes for individual ambitions as well as the overall business goals. Then manage their collective ambition. A series of small conversations can bring most, if not all, on board with your proposal ahead of any formal presentation.

8. Drive understanding, not consensus

Remember that you are driving this project, not a helpless bystander. You can help guide the decision to the bigger challenge and you don’t need to play to the lowest common denominator in order to achieve it.

9. Identify the single objective

Board members might disagree, but there is always one factor that will unite them. It may be a target they need to hit or a competitor they are frustrated by. Identify it, and keep the room focused on it.

10. If at first you don’t succeed…

Keep the door to the Board open. If you don’t get frequent access then set up and tap the relevant subcommittee so that you always check in and don’t need to wait forever to get back on the agenda.

If you are seeking buy-in at Board level, then the chances are you will be seeking radical change rather than, as someone once put it, slicing the salami. . Then just like facing the Dragons, you will get the best outcome if you do your homework beforehand so that on the day, you can focus on the prize.

Maths and Magic in equal measure.


Illustration by LA Hall.

Rose Bentley is Global Head of Business Development at Wolff Olins. Follow her @rosembentley