Marketers Guide To Gaining Board Member Buy-In

It was an autumn day at P&G. We as a team had tried for the third time to get Board buy-in to launching a new shampoo, only to be told for the third time that our value proposition and business case weren’t compelling enough – and to go back and rework them again. We sat in the company cafeteria  dejected, not knowing why we kept failing to convince the Board to invest, and unclear on what to do next.

In business, we’re trained to make decisions logically, rationalizing the benefits of a business proposal using a compelling recommendation supported by a robust business case. 
Often a single meeting to review a commercial, credible, concise and clear-cut presentation is enough to get feedback and buy-in.

Yet, in real life, some business decisions can be more emotional in nature, particularly those that involve some element of personal risk, such as:

  • ‘It might negatively impact my team’s sales or profit performance’
  • ‘It might result in me losing some of my power base’
  • ‘It might force me to do something that my peers or boss would disapprove of’.

In my experience, this emotional angle is as true for Board members as it is for others. It can cause some Board members to be helpful, some to be elusive, and some to be downright difficult.

Today on Branding Strategy Insider we explore why Board members behave as they do, and how to engage them, respond to them and perform well when under pressure.

Engaging The Board

Marketers are typically trained to build a strong set of recommendations with supporting rational before engaging Board members, resulting in them sometimes engaging Board members relatively late in the day. This can cause Board members to feel:

  • ‘Blind-sided’ as it’s the first that they’ve heard of it.
  • ‘Sold to’ rather than ‘included in the problem solving’.
  • ‘Squeezed’ into a corner as they are only being shown one option.

In turn, this can cause senior managers to question the recommendations and so what’s, and be slow or even negative when asked for their approval.

In contrast, members prefer to be engaged early on in the ‘team debate’. They like to input into team thinking, and feel that they have much to offer throughout the problem-solving process.

To illustrate, I am often asked to interview the Board with the aim of getting their input and agreement. But when they don’t know me, they are often elusive – unwilling to give me even 30 minutes of their time.

In one situation I was asked to get Board level agreement to migrating all of their less well-known brands to their one preeminent brand. I requested one-on-one 30-minute face-to-face interviews with each of the Board members – and, as is typical, some Board members were happy to engage, and some were elusive refusing to give me time. Eventually, after much persistence, I managed to book in at least a 15-minute phone call with every Board member.

In that early stage meeting, I ran a one-page hypothesis past each of them with the aim of:

  • Involving them in the problem solving, using them to help to create robust recommendations based on their experience and intuition.
  • Accessing any data or facts that could help support the recommendation and business case.
  • Identifying and addressing concerns or ‘showstoppers’ by understanding what they would need to see or hear to overcome them.

Consequently, I asked questions (rather than made ‘selling’ statements) to tease out their points of view and suggested ways forward.

At the end of the meeting, I asked one very elusive Board member whether he would like to be involved in the next round of Board interviews. Surprisingly he said ‘yes’. Given his original reluctance to be involved I asked him why, and he said how much he had enjoyed the conversation, as ‘Ruth, all everyone ever does is sell to me, no one ever asks my opinion’.

Over time I’ve learned that engaging Board members early on in the problem solving process enables them to help shape the proposed approach and recommendations, which in turn helps to build Board buy-in early on.

Dealing With Difficult Board members

When getting the Board on-board, some Board members can be quick to give their agreement, some can be non-committal and some can be downright difficult, even when met with one-on-one.

I ask those in agreement to help lobby the other Board members for their support. I spend less time with those who are neutral, as the project typically neither interests nor concerns them, and thus they are happy to go with the flow. In contrast, I typically spend most time with the dissenters. Their negativity is unlikely to be due to them being deliberately awkward or ‘Machiavellian’ but more likely to be because they lack time due to other priorities or interests, or have a genuinely valid emotional concern about the project – and so I to try to find ways to overcome their issues and convince them to come on-board.

When emotional concerns exist, a logical, compelling recommendation and a robust business case is unlikely to be enough.  In these cases, rather than bulldoze or ignore a difficult or elusive Board member, marketers need to listen to and understand their issues, and try to find ways to address their concerns to achieve a win-win solution.

Take, for instance, a large project involving the migration of the local brand to a global brand. Understandably, local Board members were apprehensive that a brand name change would result in them being taken over by the global team and losing their local power base. During the first local brand migration workshop, the situation became so fraught that the local Chief Marketing Officer who had launched the original brand was so incensed that she exclaimed, “Stop, you’re killing my baby.”

Interestingly, having now done a number of brand migration projects I’ve noticed that it typically takes three workshops to get teams on-board and comfortable:

  • In the first workshop, their reaction and hope is that the whole issue will go away.
  • In the second workshop, they recognize that someone senior must be supporting the initiative as “You’re here again”
  • In the third workshop, they start to see the upsides of a brand migration, such as the incremental local country investment enabling them to action their pet projects.

A similar reaction occurred when a local marketing team was asked to move from a local to a global brand positioning. This can evoke strong emotions, particularly when the global brand positioning is likely to be less popular in the local market. Local marketers are caught between conflicting business objectives – on the one hand the global marketing team wants them to agree to the global brand positioning, yet if they acquiesce then they may fail to meet their local objectives and their local boss will disapprove. For example, when working with one local team, they were quick to roll out the data and focus group learnings that justified the strengths of their local brand positioning and the weaknesses of the global brand positioning. They were also understandably reluctant to engage with us. By sitting with and working alongside them, as well as conducting fresh research together, we were able to find a way to bring the global brand positioning to life in a way that resonated with their local market, which in turn led to a more compelling and differentiated local brand positioning, and a new route that set a high bar for the rest of the world to follow.

A third example involved the Board assessing whether to invest in building a strong global brand. In these circumstances, senior managers can be nervous about agreeing to the recommendation, due to the need for incremental upfront investment that can cause them to miss their short-term targets. For example, in this instance, the Board member leading up the largest and most profitable company division, and thus on the hook to provide the largest share of the investment money, could see little upside for his division. Instead, he wanted to use the money to train up his sales team. He tried every method he could to try to kill the project, for example, questioning the need and likely return of building a strong brand, and arguing to his peers that a sales training program would be much more effective. But when his peers disagreed, he was forced to back down.

In these situations, it’s important to take the time to listen to, understand and respect the concerns of those who will be affected. By bringing the underlying emotional issues to light, the team can be sympathetic to and address them overtly, increasing its chances of quickly finding a win-win solution that is mutually acceptable.

Performing Under Pressure

There are times when senior Board members can act aggressively. This can be due to a desire to test the recommendations to ensure that there are no downsides or a desire to make a project or set of recommendations go away. Or it can be just down to catching a senior manager at a bad time when they are excessively under pressure, over-stretched or tired after a tough day.

In these situations it is important to be simultaneously firm, by confidently holding one’s ground – yet empathetic, by listening to their questions and concerns with the aim of negotiating a win-win solution.

Below are three techniques that have helped me to perform well when under pressure.

“Dance Baby Dance”

For example, in one project, I met a senior Board member for the first time at 7am on a Monday, to present some quantitative research data on what drives customer behavior. He spent the first 15 minutes of the hour-long meeting firing a series of complex statistical questions at me at rapid speed, assessing which statistical techniques we had used and why, to see if I knew my subject or if I flinched. For example, are the questions in my comfort zone, or do any bamboozle me? Do I answer all of the questions confidently, or do any fluster me? 
Once he saw that we knew our subject and had considered and discounted a number of options for sound, logical reasons, he visibly relaxed – and we successfully sold in the findings and ‘so whats’ of the data analysis.

Similarly, when I was a brand manager, I had to redo every piece of packaging copy for more than thirty Olay stock keeping units (SKUs). When I took them to the marketing director for approval, his opening question was whether he would find even one mistake when he read through them that night. Without hesitation, I answered that he would find no mistakes. Because of my confident reply, he signed the paperwork then and there, without any further checking.

I call this scenario “Dance Baby Dance” – imagining that they are firing bullets at my feet and thus forcing me to dance – and I’ve found that if I hold my ground and answer confidently, they soon visibly relax.

“Shoot Me In The Heart”

In another scenario, a senior Board member found the work I was doing threatening to his power base and so was constantly on the attack, taking every opportunity to undermine me in front of his team and peers. For example, in one Board meeting, he disagreed with my data and fact base, and thereby my recommendations, citing his team as much more capable of running the project.

In that meeting, the aggression caused me to close in on myself – by crossing my arms, dropping my shoulders and hunching forward in my chair, in essence, to protect my body. This physical sign of nervousness encouraged him to attack me even more. When I realized this, I consciously opened up my body – by making myself bigger, throwing my shoulders wider, and sitting back in my chair in a more relaxed way, with my arms open and either alongside my body or placed on the arms of the chair. When I did this, two things happened. Firstly, I felt more relaxed, confident and in control – and my nervousness reduced. In a sense, by physically relaxing, my mind seemed to mentally relax too, making me less on the defensive. Secondly, my ‘attacker’ was visibly surprised by the move – he expected me to be cowed but instead I had given him a ‘clear shot at my heart’ – implying that I had every reason to be confident and thus he should engage. At the end of the meeting, he actually complimented me, for the one and only time, saying ‘Ruth, I have never seen eye to eye with you, but I am actually impressed by the work you’re doing’.

I call this “Shoot Me in the Heart” and have found it incredibly effective at turning an aggressive meeting into a constructive one.

“Eye On The Bullseye”

On the Board presentation day itself, it’s easy to feel the pressure. As a nervous presenter, it’s an issue I very much empathize with.

Over time, I’ve learned how to eliminate presentation day nerves, not by following a tight script as I used to do, but instead to focus on

  • Why senior management needs to engage – by demonstrating why the project is important for the company, as well as for each of them personally as part of the leadership team.
  • What you want their agreement to – ensuring that the ‘reasons to progress’ are compelling and that the three to five ‘asks’ are tangible.

For example, when working with the top team of a FTSE100 company, I presented the recommendation to build a strong global brand to the CEO and his top 20 leaders. Given that his top team was divided about investing in a global brand, it was a tense, high stakes 2-hour meeting – with any wrong move potentially eliminating the patchy buy-in we’d achieved to date. In essence, this was the type of meeting that would have traditionally made me very nervous.

On the day itself, I remember walking into the meeting with a clear view of why the top team should engage, and the key recommendations and next steps that we wanted their agreement to. Yet, as I started to walk through the 30-page presentation, the meeting kept going off-piste, with senior managers raising their pet topics and concerns, and distracting the conversation away from the main agenda.

By bringing them back to why they should engage and what we wanted agreement to, we spent less time focusing on the presentation deck, and more time letting them meander across the range of topics that they wanted to discuss, and then bringing them back to the discussion that really mattered, namely should they build a strong global brand and if so how. This in turn secured buy-in.

In Summary

To get the Board members on-board, it’s important to win over their hearts as well as their minds, by ‘walking in their shoes’ and showing them how important the project will be for the company and for each of them as part of the team.

To achieve this, marketers should engage Board members as allies throughout the problem-solving process. They should talk with senior managers in an early stage ‘listening and problem-solving’ rather than ‘selling’ meeting – with the aim of getting senior managers’ input on what the ‘right answer’ is, identifying and addressing any concerns or ‘showstoppers’, and accessing any support data that will help make the case.

They should not shy away from challenging conversations with Board members. When under pressure, they should simultaneously be firm, by holding their ground, yet empathetic, by taking the time to listen to their questions and concerns with the aim of achieving a mutually beneficial win-win solution.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Ruth Saunders and excerpted from her book,

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