As a leader, you fill a critical role inside your company. You lead or initiate key projects that can positively – or negatively – impact business performance.
As a result, you must master the art of building (and selling) an effective business case in order to gain executive approval and implement key strategies necessary to achieve strategic business objectives.
Following a workshop that I delivered on the topic of “Building an Effective Business Case for Leadership Development” at a conference attended by senior human resources and talent acquisition leaders, one of the attendees came forward at the end of the workshop and explained to me that she was having difficulty getting her executive team to agree to move forward with a leadership development program she and her team had recently proposed.
Obviously frustrated, she was seeking any tips or tricks that I might be able to offer her to get the CEO and the executive team to buy-in to the proposed program that her team had spent months researching and creating.
Before offering any coaching or advice, I wanted to gather a little more information. So, I asked:
“Why did you initially decide to create a leadership development program?”
She thought for a minute, before jokingly saying,
“I don’t really know. I guess because it seems like the right thing to do.”
Sensing why she might be having difficulty selling her proposal to the executive team, I tried another angle:
“Is there a specific problem in your organization that you believe implementing a leadership development program would solve?”
Seeing where the conversation was going, she smiled and said,
“I can’t really think of anything specific. I guess that’s a big part of the problem.”
To gain approval for any new program, initiative, or process – basically anything that requires the decision to allocate money, time, or resources – business leaders MUST build an effective business case.
Four Critical Steps for Building a Successful Business Case
1. Define the problem.
Success Tip: Opportunities are problems with smiley faces.
Problems in need of a solution can come in the form of areas that cause pain, or areas that represent missed opportunities. There’s a reason that you’re compelled to investigate a solution.
To set your business case up for success, you’ve got to be able to articulate the source of pain or opportunity to your organization by using data.
If you can’t effectively explain the problem or opportunity? Then you’ll have even more difficulty explaining the need for a solution.
2. Quantify how the problem negatively impacts business results.
Success Tip: This is always about money.
Business executives speak the language of money.
To communicate with them effectively, you must be able to analyze available data, and explain how not solving the problem(s) identified is costing the company money – or where the opportunity to make money is not being capitalized upon because a solution has not yet been implemented.
If executives cannot see how failure to act on a problem negatively impacts their bonuses and the bottom line, they’ll apply their focus and resources elsewhere – and your business case will go nowhere.
3. Evaluate possible solutions and make a recommendation.
Success Tip: Always propose more than one possible solution.
The savvy business leader always explores and proposes multiple solutions – or versions of a solution – in order to open the minds of decision-makers to possibilities, rather than giving them only one option that they must approve or reject.
However, it’s not enough to just propose options.
The executive team will expect you to utilize data analysis, and your expertise, to recommend the best solution. They’ll also expect you to be able to defend your recommendation and to negotiate alternatives – because that’s how business gets done.
4. Quantify how your recommended solution positively impacts business results.
Success Tip: This is also always about money.
The final step in building an effective business case involves defining an implementation plan for your recommended solution, and detailing how successful implementation will enable the company to make more money, increase customer satisfaction, improve retention, improve employee engagement, etc. — in financial terms.
To get approved, a business case must include liberal use of numbers with currency signs and/or percentage symbols. Key words that executives pay attention to include increase, decrease, improve, grow, reduce, etc.
At the workshop I mentioned previously, after taking a few moments to share these critical steps for presenting a successful business case with my new friend, she left the workshop realizing that she had quite a bit of homework to do before making her proposal again — IF she was able to show that it was truly worth the investment of time and money by her organization.
I’m confident that by working through the four steps to building a successful business case listed above, she’ll increase her chances for gaining approval for her initiative — or have a better understanding as to why it’s not important to pursue.
And you can do this too.
As a keynote speaker and leadership coach, Jennifer McClure helps leaders to embrace the future of work, and to develop the skills necessary to lead their organizations and the people on their teams to take bold actions that positively impact business results.
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