Decision-makers in upper management aren’t your boss – they’re your customer. Learn how to influence them by managing up well.

Decisions in your company are made by the individuals who have been deputized to make them. Despite their authority, these decision-makers are not necessarily the smartest or most capable people for the decisions with which they are faced. Many listen carefully to counsel from those around them; many don’t. Nonetheless, they are the people. I counsel clients and students to think of decision-makers – often known as upper management – as their customer.

If you can influence the key decision-makers in your organization, you can make a positive difference. If you cannot influence decision-makers, you will make much less of a difference. Once you make peace with these facts, you will become more effective in influencing up.

The following suggestions will help you influence your customer. They do not come with a guarantee. That’s because when you don’t have the power to control outcomes, you won’t always win. But if you follow these suggestions, they will improve your odds on successfully making a positive difference.

1. Realize you must sell your ideas

When presenting ideas to decision-makers, realize that it is your responsibility to sell, not their responsibility to buy. In many ways, influencing ultimate decision-makers is similar to selling products or services to external customers. They don’t have to buy – you have to sell. No one is impressed with salespeople who blame their customers for not buying their products. While the importance of taking responsibility may seem obvious in external sales, an amazing number of people in large corporations spend countless hours blaming management for not buying their ideas. A key part of the influence process involves the education of decision-makers.

The effective influencer needs to be a good teacher.

2. Focus on contribution to the larger good – not just the achievement of your objectives

An effective salesperson would never say to a customer, “You need to buy this product, because if you don’t, I won’t achieve my objectives.” Effective salespeople relate to the needs of the buyers, not to their own needs. In the same way, effective influencers relate to the larger needs of the organization, not just to the needs of their unit or team.

3. Strive to win the big battles

Don’t waste your energy and psychological capital on trivial points. Executives’ time is very limited. Do a thorough analysis of ideas before challenging the system. Focus on issues that will make a real difference. Be willing to lose on small points. Be especially sensitive to their need to win trivial non-business arguments on things like restaurants, sports teams or cars. You are paid to do what makes a difference and to win on important issues. You are not paid to win arguments on the relative quality of athletic teams.

4. Present a realistic ‘cost-benefit’ analysis of your ideas – don’t just sell benefits

Every organization has limited resources, time and energy. The acceptance of your idea may well mean the rejection of another idea that someone else believes is wonderful. Be prepared to have a realistic discussion of the costs of your idea.

5. Challenge issues involving ethics or integrity – never remain silent on ethics violations 

The best corporations can be severely damaged by one violation of corporate integrity. Refuse to compromise on company ethics. Take action.

6. Realize that powerful people also make mistakes. Don’t say, “I am amazed that someone at this level…”  

It is realistic to expect decision-makers to be competent; it is unrealistic to expect them to be anything other than normal human beings. Focus more on helping them than judging them.

7. Don’t be disrespectful 

While it is important to avoid kissing up to decision-makers, it is just as important to avoid the opposite reaction. Before speaking, it is generally good to ask one question from four perspectives. Will this comment help 1) our company 2) our customers 3) the person I am talking to, and 4) the person I am talking about? If the answers are no, no, no and no, don’t say it!

8. Support the final decision 

Treat decision-makers the same way that you would want to be treated. If you stab that person in the back in front of your direct reports, what are you teaching them to do when they disagree with you?

9. Make a positive difference – don’t just try to ‘win’ or ‘be right’ 

We can easily become more focused on what others are doing wrong than on how we can make things better. An important guideline in influencing up is to always remember your goal: making a positive difference for the organization. The more other people can be ‘right’ or ‘win’ with your idea, the more likely your idea will be executed.

10. Focus on the future – let go of the past 

One of the most important behaviours to avoid is whining about the past. Have you ever managed someone who incessantly whined about how bad things are? Nobody wins. Successful people love getting ideas aimed at helping them achieve their goals for the future. By focusing on the future, you can concentrate on what can be achieved tomorrow, not what was not achieved yesterday.

The crowning glory

Now, think of the years that you have spent ‘perfecting your craft’. Think of all of the knowledge that you have accumulated. Think about how your knowledge can potentially benefit your organization. How much energy have you invested in acquiring all of this knowledge? How much energy have you invested in learning to present this knowledge to decision-makers so that you can make a real difference? My hope is that by making a small investment in learning to influence decision-makers, you can make a large, positive difference to the future of your organization.

— Marshall Goldsmith is a world-renowned executive leadership coach, speaker and writer.

An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website