A Guide to Executive Buy-In

An illustrated image of two hands shaking, to represent getting executive buy-in.

7-minute read

This article explores the critical importance of executive buy-in, including its impact on project success, and uncovers effective strategies to secure support for successful products.

Securing executive buy-in is essential for product teams seeking to launch and complete successful projects. It’s the bridge that connects ambitious projects with the resources and strategic direction they need to succeed.

However, establishing executive buy-in can be challenging for product managers because it requires a nuanced understanding of executives’ perspectives, leadership priorities, and business goals.

Ready to dive in? Keep reading to learn how to get leadership buy-in or just the links below to jump to the section that most interests you.

What is executive buy-in?

Executive buy-in is defined as the agreement from company executives or leadership to support or invest in a project. Specifically, product initiatives that may need executive buy-in could include:

  • New product development
  • Redesigns of existing products
  • Major updates
  • Integration or adoption of technologies, such as AI or IoT
  • Strategic partnerships or collaborations with other brands and products
  • Product life cycle decisions, such as discontinuing a product

Why is executive buy-in important?

Executive buy-in is essential to the success of many large projects. A 2023 report by TeamStage found that 70% of projects fail globally, and 37% of the time, a lack of clear goals is the primary reason for project failure. Securing executive buy-in is essential to prevent your project from being part of that unlucky 70%. This ensures that senior leadership has reviewed and approved the project proposal. In turn, this validates the credibility and worthiness of the project. This can help the project get completed. TeamStage’s research found that 62% of successfully completed projects had supportive sponsors, underscoring the importance of buy-in.

Effects on Team Morale

Beyond project success, executive buy-in can have profound effects on team morale. Without support, projects may end before they have a chance to begin. When this happens, the team can feel that leadership doesn’t see the value in their work. A 2020 survey of professionals conducted by FastCompany and the North Colorado Social Research Lab found that 41% of employees felt that their company leadership didn’t value innovation. This prevented employees from speaking up, sharing ideas, or elevating projects. Team members may ruminate on negative perceptions or feel unable or unwilling to speak up in the future. This lack of psychological safety can be corrosive to growing companies.

Understanding executive’s perspectives

While this cycle of communication can be frustrating and detrimental for teams, it’s also important to understand the executive’s perspective. Urgent requests and information come to executives from all corners of the company, and projects may fall to the wayside compared to more pressing matters. Furthermore, in the past, the importance of projects may not have been communicated effectively if they were communicated at all. Therefore, leadership may be resistant to innovative new projects.

Ultimately, executives are like buyers. Product teams (the sellers) are seeking buy-in for their projects (the product). Like real customers, executives’ needs, concerns, and motivations should be considered and addressed during the proposal.

Furthermore, executives are responsible for the long-term success of their company. They least of all want siloed work, poor communication, low morale, and sub-par productivity if they are trying to grow a company.

How to get executive buy-in

There are multiple tactics you can take here. First and foremost, before you approach an executive about any project, it should be fleshed out and make sense. Starting with a strategic product plan is essential to align your project with business goals.

Strategy #1: Treat the executive like a buyer

To design a project plan that will garner executive support, you should thoroughly understand your organization’s strategic goals, how individual executives define success, and what obstacles each executive is confronting.

Executives in your organization may be the VPs of sales, marketing, product, and even the CEO. Here are some questions to ask them directly or to consider with your peers or supervisors.

Questions to understand executive buy-in

  • What are the top obstacles or problems that interfere with success in their role?
  • What does winning look like for them? How do they measure success?
  • How do they approach business decisions today?
  • What were their primary concerns about past project proposals?
  • Were there any resource or budgetary constraints that impacted their past decisions?
  • Could past project proposals have been better aligned with the company’s goals?
  • How can teams improve communication or presentation of proposals to meet and exceed their expectations?

The answers to these questions should guide how you position your project. When developing a project proposal, outline the challenges the business faces and how the project can help solve those problems. Explicitly address possible concerns and provide solutions. Then, match the project’s outcome to key business goals and clearly outline the steps needed to achieve those goals. This will help you demonstrate how the successful completion of this project will drive the business forward.

Strategy #2: Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) for your organization 

Once you understand your executives, you can assess how the company’s strategic objectives correspond to each department’s aims. Understanding and addressing this in your project proposal will highlight the project’s business importance for the entire company (beyond your individual team). If KPIs are already established, demonstrate how the project supports those KPIs.

Every organization has KPIs that are unique to their industry or business needs. Here are some common KPIs that your company may work toward:

Marketing

  • Lead Conversion Rate
  • Percentage Market Share

Sales

  • Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)
  • Average Sales Cycle Time

Product

  • Feature Adoption and Usage Rates
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS)

You can also explore a list of 23 product life cycle metrics that may impact your product KPIs.

Strategy #3: Develop a strategic product roadmap

When setting KPIs, it’s essential to focus your efforts on goals that reflect your company’s priorities for the next 12-18 months. Develop a product roadmap to demonstrate the path forward and show your executives that you’ve considered future development of the product. Most importantly, illustrate how this product will bring about measurable market success and use those same metrics as a sign of success for your team. This enables your results to match the broader objectives of the business, taking your team from just executing tasks to having a strategic role.

Strategy #4: Lead the conversation as a subject matter expert (SME)

Once you’ve worked to understand the executive perspective, aligned on KPIs, and developed a roadmap, your proposal is ready for executive review. Beyond the materials you prepare, you can become a part of the conversation as a subject matter expert (SME) at your company.

Actively demonstrate your expertise within the organization by regularly sharing updates and insights with leadership. Make opportunities to educate your team and executives on the project’s value. Tailor the information you share to relate back to KPIs and illustrate how they affect your business’s goals and priorities. Network with other departments to increase cross-functional collaboration (and support your cause). Finally, you can build credibility by initiating and completing smaller projects, demonstrating larger product projects’ value.

Summary

Although securing executive buy-in can be difficult, it is essential to ensure successful projects. Product managers can take steps to understand executives’ concerns and perspectives, proactively identify KPIs, provide product roadmaps, and lead as subject matter experts in their companies. These steps can ensure executive confidence in projects and capture buy-in.

Author

  • Scott Olson

    Scott Olson is a marketing and product strategy professional with 25+ years of experience leading technology companies. Past roles include Cisco, iovation, TransUnion, and Outseer. He is also a founding partner of Compete2Win, a competitive market research and win/loss analysis services company. For questions or inquiries, please contact [email protected].

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