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Taking on City Hall

Senior Lecturer and former Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer shares his advice on how to succeed in influencing decisions by zooming out from looking just at the negotiation.

Last week a committed student leader was in my office seeking advice on how to influence a policy decision whose outcome was not trending in the direction he hoped. He was concerned and frustrated. The powers that be were in his view not being transparent, consistent, or particularly willing to listen or engage in dialogue. It felt a lot to him like “we are in charge and not you, so too bad”. This situation brought to mind my own experiences in trying to influence decision makers whose decisions determined the outcome of something vitally important to my colleagues and me. In fact, almost all senior leaders in today’s highly complex, regulated and interconnected world economy will face these kinds of challenges. At the most extreme, the decision can make or break the enterprise and at the most tactical result in a sale won or lost, deal closed or not, and perhaps a key employee hired or retained.

As we talked, we reviewed the approach that most successful advocates follow to maximize their influence in these complex and often vital decision processes. You undoubtedly have some experience in this process and the popularity of our negotiation related courses speaks to the enduring interest in and importance of the subject area. Let’s expand our lens beyond the negotiation core, though, and consider the entire process, because only in recognizing and influencing all of the process elements can the negotiation at the heart of the best and most successful advocacy dialogue be well concluded.

By ascending to the right altitude we are able to see the entire playing field and consider a framework to shape our thinking. There are four key framework elements and each has its own requirements to master for the advocate: (1) understand the decision process which is inevitably not as linear, simple, or transparent as one could hope or first seems; (2) be a maximally personally credible advocate which involves not just you as an individual in the moment but many and varied elements of reputation earned over time and more; (3) make good choices in which issues to choose, your engagement timing and preparation efforts, and who you enlist as allies; and finally (4) make your arguments as persuasive as possible using facts and logic rather than emotion, being clean and succinct, and having in depth backup if needed and more.

Fully discussing each of these vital framework elements is beyond the scope of this brief column, but perhaps you will find useful some thoughts about some of the most common mistakes observers consistently note. Misjudging the decision process is a sure-fire loser, and most often happens by not truly understanding the almost inevitably more numerous, inter-related and complex factors that bear on the decision-makers e.g. precedent, favors owed, boss pressure, personal experience, and the list goes on.

An advocate can be too clever by half in presenting only a version of the story to the busy and perhaps not fully informed decision maker. This partial story may be true in the facts relayed but not really true by its omission or mischaracterization of alternatives. When the decision maker discovers this as they almost certainly will, you will and should lose.

This error can be compounded by overplaying passion and crossing the line from effective advocate to self-defeating. Picking the wrong issue to go to the wall over, being too early or late, and having no allies or the wrong allies all frequently contribute to disappointing outcomes.

Finally, being overly verbose, complex, confused or lacking in clear benefit articulation will often sink arguments that on their merits in mores skillful or well-prepared hands would prevail. Doing some trial runs with a good discussion partner can often avoid these pitfalls.

Mastering the art of advocacy is a never-ending process as the issues, decision makers, stakes, societal norms, technology, laws, and regulations all change. But the framework elements are enduring. Back to my visitor; we concluded it best to accept the gains he had made, and go back to the framework informed drawing board ready to take his next shot later. He also left my office with a new ally.

October 20, 2014
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