Senior Management

Wrestling with Getting Executive Buy-In

Getting executive buy-in for your initiative is critical – here are some ideas on how to do it.

My last two columns in Information Management magazine discussed How to Start a Data Governance Program and recommended working in the areas of people, process, technology – and information – to achieve success by taking a 4-Dimensional Approach to Data Governance.

This article focuses on how to get executive buy-in. Many times, it’s not a pretty picture. You’ll hear people say things like, “we think master data management is a nice-to-have, not a must-have”. Or if they’re really being straight with you, “it’s hard to get people excited about data”.

There are a few things going at once here. First, since I’ve been able to work with many different organizations over the years, internal people do seem to be working at a disadvantage some times. There’s an old saying that “a prophet is without honor in his own country”, which means that the old familiar people, even when they’re saying some terrific things that make a lot of sense for the business, may tend not to be listened to as well as they should.

Secondly, work on your own passion level. One of the main reasons companies bring our firm in to help them convince their management team of the need for a master data management (MDM) solution is because of our passion. It’s very noticeable, and if you can develop that same level of enthusiasm and excitement for your potential project, it will be a huge help in selling the vision to other people, including your company’s executives. Ultimately, you can’t sell what you don’t believe in, and people pay attention to that type of “burning platform” passion.

Thirdly, we can all use a brush up on our communications skills. My friend Tom Carlock wrote a great article titled So You Want to Be a Data Champion? on in April 2008, in which he said “you need to craft your elevator speech (an overview of an idea for a product, service or project)”, and “take time to customize a small portion of your speech to show how your vision can have a direct impact on your audience”. So work on your powers of persuasion. As hard as it is, start selling your ideas to senior management. Practice on your boss first. Then work on that person’s boss. Work from there. Eventually you’ll become comfortable meeting with and presenting to the most senior people in your company.

It can be a little overwhelming. Be as prepared as it is humanly possible to be. Most people at the senior level are incredibly smart – and they’re liable to ask tough questions, so try to anticipate as many of them as you can. Have a positive attitude, and exercise good listening habits, so that you make sure not to cut them off in your excitement to answer the question.

Constantly be trying to build bridges and relationships between yourself and different parts of the business. Executive buy-in will most likely end up coming from a consensus built from several parts of the organization, not a single overwhelming element of the business case.

So play the part of the person who brings together all the disparate parts of the business, someone who weaves together the anecdotes, war stories and proponents from all of the far flung parts of the company. That person, the gatherer of the business pain points from all over the company, plays a unique role. Make sure you quantify the pain points as you gather them, even if it’s at an estimate level only. You’ll need that for your business case later on.

What do you do with the people who refuse to buy in, the naysayers who go on the attack or who quietly sit on the sidelines, bide their time and then start lobbing bombs? For the out-and-out naysayers, try to figure out how strong their political pull is, so you can classify them as strong or weak opponents. This will help you figure out what to do about them, and how to respond to their opposition – whether to respond at all if they’re strong opponents or whether to just ignore them if they’re weak.

If people remain uncommitted, try to find out why – are there other priorities that matter more to them? Do they have a hidden agenda? Sometimes the easiest way to find out why someone is not being supportive is to come right out and ask. Find out what you’d have to change in order to get them on board, and if you can, make those changes.

A couple of things I’ve seen is when the executive wants to run the program himself, or when the person in question wants a senior role in the data governance organization. Then the opposition makes more sense, once you see it in that context.

Enterprise-wide MDM programs or the data governance organizations and processes that go with them are long term programs. The executive buy-in you’ll need is a critical step that cannot be skipped or shortchanged. You’ll only be harming yourselves if you miss getting the buy-in step right. Every subsequent step becomes much harder, to the point where your funding can dry up in mid-stream, and your project resources can disappear on you overnight.

But with this executive buy-in, it’s like having “air cover” at critical stages when you need it. You’ll find everything goes more smoothly. Getting access to critical business people will be easier; calendars will align and meeting rooms will become available. Funding and resources become available. Obstacles are removed. Project deadlines that looked dubious now start to look reasonable. The difference is night and day.

Getting executive buy-in is worth the trouble it takes to get, and in almost every case, I wouldn’t advise proceeding with a project without getting it.

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