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Selling Your Ideas to the Boss

Yes, your boss can listen to and accept your ideas—but it won’t happen automatically

By Michelle Neely Martinez

You’ve come up with a truly innovative way to boost sales for your organization. Or perhaps you’ve devised a sure-fire way to increase customer satisfaction. Bubbling with enthusiasm, you immediately pitch the idea to your boss and are dumbfounded when he doesn’t share your excitement. In fact, he doesn’t seem to agree that your idea would even work.

Take a step back for a moment. Realize that you did not stumble upon your brilliant idea in one glorious moment—it took time, says Mark Maletz, a principal with management consultancy McKinsey & Co. in Boston.

“When your boss doesn’t understand your ideas immediately, don’t label her an ignorant bureaucrat. That attitude will back your boss against the wall and make it difficult for you to get your point across,” he notes. “Instead, recognize that your boss has to go through a similar journey of understanding to what you traveled to get there. Help your boss discover what you’re proposing and you’ll find that you won’t have to waste time maneuvering or dodging.”

What can you do to speed up the boss’s discovery process? Here are three steps you can take:

  • Study your boss’s language. What metaphors does he frequently use—does he describe business in terms of sports, combat or construction? What are his current buzz words? By learning and using his language, you can pitch your idea using his vocabulary, which will make the message stronger and more meaningful.
  • Build a foundation. Gather facts, statistics, case histories, documents and other evidence that supports your position. People are often skeptical of oral arguments, but seem to take the words printed in an article, book or report seriously. Collect and make copies of surveys, studies and article clippings, highlighting key facts to make them jump off the page. You may end up using only a small percentage of this material, but you’ll exude greater confidence knowing it exists. Then, informally discuss your idea with the boss. Try to elicit his or her concerns and address them so that when you formally present your idea, it won’t be immediately shot down. Find out what is and isn’t appealing about your idea. If possible, come up with some alternative plans. That way, the decision-maker is put in the position of having to choose from several alternatives rather than having to say “no” to one idea.
  • Put yourself in the boss’ shoes. Try to think as the boss would when developing all angles of your proposal. Continually ask yourself: How would the boss view this? What would his response be? Try to picture the boss’s first impression. And keep in mind his personal and professional concerns.

Here’s a good case in point: A sales agent shared her idea about devising a new system to handle customer inquiries with senior management. She had taken the time to work on the system because the existing one was not meeting her customers’ needs. In the course of tweaking the system, she came up with ideas that made the system better from her employer’s perspective. However, when she presented her idea to senior management, she started the presentation by talking about the advantages to the salespeople, such as herself, and she immediately felt audience resistance.

When she finally got to the points that were of benefit to the employer, the resistance subsided. “I should have known that,” she said. “I’ve been selling for 22 years and I know that you talk about the benefits from a customer’s perspective, not your own. But when you are personally involved, when it isn’t someone else’s product, it’s easier to lose track of what sells your ideas.”

Building Your Own Credibility

Stephen Covey, leadership authority and author of the highly acclaimed book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says that building up your own credibility is a big step in getting colleagues and superiors to buy into your ideas.

“Credibility is something you earn gradually by being one of the best performers,” he says. “Also, don’t bad-mouth your boss. Be loyal to people in their absence. Then watch how others begin having more faith and confidence in you, because they know that you won’t be talking about them behind their backs. And finally, understand the place from which your boss is coming. Nothing is more validating and affirming than feeling understood. And the moment a person begins feeling understood, that person becomes far more open to influence and change.”

Michelle Neely Martinez is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in workplace and management issues. She can be reached at

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