What do executives have in common with school kids? They both can be pretty picky. So when we read 6 Quick Lessons from the School Lunch Line for Pleasing Picky Customers, we realized that the tips applied equally well when trying to convince company executives to green-light a sustainability project. We've taken the article's six lessons which are listed below, and added our own commentary.
1. Involve them into the process.
It's easier to get approval for something when the person you are trying to convince feels ownership of it -- so ask for input and solicit feedback as you begin to plan and refine your proposal. Find out what makes your executives tick (cost savings, innovation, beating a competitor, etc.) and work that aspect into your pitch.
2. Give a nod to what they know.
If you can build on an existing program or process that is well-tested and well-loved, all the better. Anything you can do to reduce the risk (or perceived risk) of a new sustainability venture will make it more palatable for executives to swallow.
3. Free samples never hurt.
Can you give executives a taste of what's to come? Whether it's the results of a small pilot study ("Look, in just a week we saved $568- Imagine what we could do by rolling out this program company wide!") or a tangible thing to hold (a prototype of a new product), giving people a "bite" to try before committing to the whole meal can lower their resistance to something new.
4. Use peer dynamics. People are naturally competitive.
Sometimes you can use C-Suite dynamics to your advantage -- but tread carefully. You may find that certain executives are eager to prove themselves. That may mean that they challenge each other to find better and better sustainability initiatives. (Or it may mean that they undercut each other -- so again, be thoughtful in how you play office politics.) Alternately, consider framing your idea in terms of your company versus your competition. How can your initiative help leapfrog over your industry peers? How can it help you stay competitive? How can it open new markets that others haven't yet spotted?
5. Don’t give up immediately.
Anyone who has tried to sell their idea at the executive level has probably already learned this lesson, but it's worth repeating. It's unlikely that any significant initiative will get immediate approval -- so think early and often about how to introduce a phased approach, or plan your requests so that executives have plenty of time to consider and decide.
6. On the other hand, accept your limitations.
Sometimes you just have to let it go. If executives are dead set against your program, move on. The beautiful thing about sustainability is that there is never a shortage of great ideas. So find the next one and start planning. (And don't forget that it's possible that your timing was just off -- keep your rejected idea in a drawer somewhere. It might be just what's needed six months from now!)
Thanks to 2degrees for publishing a version of this article!
If you are interested in reading more on this topic, check out our blog post: Does Your Executive Team Really Understand Your Sustainability Strategy?