Managing Up: How To Sell Leadership On Your Message

By Sarah Schott | | August 5, 2015

Mature businesswoman discussing with male colleague in office

Got a great idea you want to float by your boss? If so, you’ve probably spent time thinking about how you’ll pitch your story and build a compelling case for your proposal based on facts and figures. When communicating ‘up’ the workplace chain, however, how you deliver your message is just as important as what you say. Whether you’re drafting a memo, creating a presentation or preparing for a one-on-one conversation, you’ll have a better chance at selling leadership on your message if you follow these simple tips:

1. Level set. How much does your audience already know about the topic or issue? Unless they’re on your team, you can’t assume they have much, if any, background. At the same time, you don’t want to take up valuable time by offering context if it’s not needed. And let’s face it, senior leaders are busy people. So here’s what I do: I’ll often start a conversation by saying, “I want to talk to you about X. Do you want me to give you some background on it, or is this familiar territory for you?” Once you’re able to assess their level of baseline knowledge, interest and appetite for detail, you can adjust your communication accordingly.

2. Make it relevant. When you’re communicating to your boss or other leaders within your organization, know that your priority may not be their priority. To get them to pay attention, you’ll have to make your message relevant to them. Tie your message to something they care about. In my workplace, for example, my team is responsible for ensuring that our company is compliant with the rules and regulations that govern our industry. Leaders at Northwestern Mutual would also like our department to make it easier for people to work with us. So when I communicate to leadership, I lean on the phrase ‘making compliance easier’ because I know that’s something they care about. Of course, you may not always know what takes priority for your audience, so you may have to ask around for insight. If I needed to communicate something up to our executive team, I’d feel perfectly comfortable asking my boss, “What are they focusing on and how can I connect my message to it?”

3. Be succinct. Senior leaders want to know one thing: What’s the bottom line? So as you message up, remember this: The higher your audience is within the organization, the broader their responsibilities and the less time they have to devote to any one issue or topic. You have limited time to make your case, so don’t overload your story with details. Keep your communications brief and to the point, but be prepared to talk about the specifics if asked.

4. Show that you care. Give your audience a sense that you are energized by the potential solution and committed to its success. Sometimes people worry that showing emotion can either come across as unprofessional or signal to others that there’s no room for further discussion. But it’s hard to get others excited about your solution if you don’t show your personal enthusiasm for it. As long as you remain open to others’ input and perspectives, showing that you care will make others more confident in the direction. They’ll also feel like you can be relied on to put in the work and deliver a great result.

By taking these steps, you’ll be viewed as someone who is respectful of your audience’s time and in tune with their priorities. They’ll remember you as someone who “gets it” and whose objectives are solidly in support of the company’s overall goals. And they will be left with the impression that you can develop solutions and see them through. Over time, communicating up in the right way will help you earn the trust and confidence of your company’s leaders and achieve great outcomes for the business.

Sarah Schott is the vice president and chief compliance officer at Northwestern Mutual.

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