The 6 Reasons Executives Try Something New

As we close 2012, did you (Mr./Mrs. executive) make bold moves? Did you (Mr./Ms. Manager) get your company to make bold moves? Or did you (Startup CEO) get your clients to innovate with your technology or service?

Whether you’re trying to drive a big change from the inside, or selling innovative technology or service from the outside (such as SaaS), it’s challenging to get companies to do something new. To accelerate innovation, at some point you need executive buy-in. They can make bigger moves in time, money and policy.

Executives often speak of innovation, but may ask a team to split their focus between “run the business” vs. “change the business” activities. However, run the business ends up becoming the “busyness” that consumes the team. Ironically it’s the running that blocks the time and space needed for innovation to grow faster. Change may be resisted for many other reasons — career risk may be at the root of some of those.  As one executive of a Fortune 100 company told me, “If I attach myself to an initiative that doesn’t make it, I don’t want to be left without a chair when the music stops.”

John Kotter, of Kotter International, said in a Forbes article, “Change leadership is going to be the big challenge in the future, and the fact that almost nobody is very good at it is—well, it’s obviously a big deal.”

I’ve been selling new ideas on the inside and outside big organizations for 20 years. In my experience I’ve found there are key motivations that may ‘inspire’ executives to take risks. These are six non-mutually-exclusive reasons that risk-averse executives may take on revolution, instead of evolution. If you want to accelerate change or your sales cycle, build your proposition with one or (ideally) several of these motivations in mind.

1. Politics

Large organizations are full of “silos, politics, and turf wars,” as Patrick Lencioni notes in his book of the same name. As such, a big percentage of an executive’s time is spent thinking how to advance or protect their career. Executives rarely take corporate risks that create personal risks. On the other hand, they will take calculated risk if there’s a resonant opportunity to stand out in the organization. Though many principles below relate to political motivation, the point here is you can help executives see how they are shielded from failure or can be a visible hero in your story. Help them visualize the forthcoming cooperation and appreciation from colleagues and the C-suite. Little things can make a difference, such as using words that match hot topics for their leadership team. “Customer centricity”, “omnichannel” or “the cloud” are examples of these. Listen for topic words like these early in your conversations. Your pitch, and the way you will show results, should be presented in a such a way that the target executive can republish to demonstrate strategic relevance within their organization. Walk the executive through the buying process, initial results they can expect, and details of the sustainment phase to demonstrate they are going to attach themselves to a winner!

2. Fun

Do you think there have been corporate decisions to sponsor sports, music or entertainment because executives were fans? Or that some vendors and agencies are selected because of a “schmooze” factor (i.e. golf, fancy dinners, sports suites)? Or, perhaps an executive simply agrees to work with a company because they enjoy the people or want to be part of something fun like a photo shoot? I’ve seen decisions driven by all of the above. There are a lot of ways “fun” can play a part in motivating an executive to try something new.  A truism that applies as much to business as personal decisions: people buy on emotion and justify with fact. Some of the other motivations in this article support the “fact” (ex: data or customer sentiment), but having some fun can drive the emotion.

3. Crisis

Have you ever “seen the writing on the wall” for a company? Things are clearly headed for a bad place, yet the company doesn’t change direction. It’s maddening! The eventual crisis drives executives to do something new simply because there is no other choice. In hindsight, they wish they had acted 12 months earlier, when everyone started to see it. Why didn’t someone drive urgency for change earlier!?

To make change happen now, you can shorten the pipeline of “crisis realization” for your executive. Extrapolate results and demonstrate where the company ends up if action is not taken sooner. Demonstrate the NPV (net present value) of a decision made now. Surface as many stories, stats and anecdotes that are visible now related to the coming (or existing) crisis.  Bottom line: get others to recognize the reality that the time to react to the crisis is now, not 12 months from now!

4. ROI Data

A study in 2011 found that 73% of CEOs think marketers are not ‘effectiveness-focused’. No wonder the average tenure of a CMO is shorter than other C-roles (though still the shortest, CMO tenure has been going up over the past few years). Your ability to show return on investment will result in a return to innovation.

An initiative, technology, service, or program that has irrefutably measurable impact on the P&L can be embraced and defended easily. It’s the kind of conversation an exec would love to have with their CEO or CFO. Short of that, ANY data that leads execs to believe there’s an impact on the business is better no data.

This motivation is related to politics.  Programs or initiatives that can be defended with ROI data typically get more budget, allowing the managing exec to get more budget, build a larger team, showcase their success for advancement, and reduce company and career risk. Starting from Wall Street and working its way down into every level of a company, capitalism lusts for predictability.

5. Customer Data

May I submit into evidence your own experience as a customer.  We all wish companies we do business with were more customer centric, but it’s amazing how we forget this perspective when we walk into the doors of our own companies. We’re often surrounded by internal product-centric and financial-centric data to drive decisions, leading to incrementalization. However, if you can show overwhelming and high velocity customer sentiment that supports a change, executives have to respond. Especially if it’s a possible crisis (above), but also if it informs them of a clear direction. This is not necessarily just a focus group, but high quantity of repeated and consistent exposure to a majority percentage of real customer data that beats down or surprises an executive into a change.

A good example of this may be the Domino’s pizza campaign. A few years ago they ran a campaign where they (finally) admitted their pizza was, shall we say, sub-standard. The data was so overwhelming, and their agency so convincing with that data, that they adopted a radical approach to admitting failure and showing how they re-engineered their pizza. As a result of the campaign and the better product, Domino’s stock rose 50%.

6. Competition

At every level in an organization, actions by the competition get attention. As a Fortune 100 exec shared with me a recently, “6 months ago my CMO shot down my [new idea]. Our competitor recently adopted the same idea, and the CMO scrambled us to respond. He didn’t seem to remember I suggested the same idea 6 months earlier.”  Obviously he didn’t see it as a crisis until after the competition did it.

Competition may be one of the most powerful motivations for change. When an executive sees competition doing something new, there HAS to be some response. The decision will be to follow, do something different, or do nothing. To take advantage of this motivation, you can demonstrate what the competition is doing, but also where they may go next. Recommending a response is a powerful way to get investment for action.

Competitive motivation doesn’t have to be direct same-industry competition. You can also show how a company is falling behind to companies similar in nature. For example, I’ve driven change by demonstrating how a non-competitive brand of the same company size and product value was succeeding with social innovation.


Getting a big company to make a big change can feel like pushing a boulder uphill, in the wind, wearing slippers. To gain traction you need to appeal to executives intrinsic motivators. To sell your initiative, product or service through you need to protect them from internal politics; expose them to fun; help them avoid or manage a crisis; drive proven ROI; respond to customer sentiment; and/or provide an competitive advantage – or remove a disadvantage.  The more motivations you can provide, the greater the chance of a yes from the C-suite…and the more likely you get promoted into a position to be motivated by all of the above!

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