In this edition of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & Chief Executive Bryan Strawser submits himself to questioning from Bryghtpath Consultant Bray Wheeler on the topic of how to make the case to leadership to gain new resources, headcount, finances, or approval for a project.
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Bryan Strawser: Hello and welcome to the Managing Uncertainty podcast. This is Brian Strawser, principal and chief executive here at Bryghtpath.
Bray Wheeler: This is Bray Wheeler, consultant here at Bryghtpath.
Bryan Strawser: We’re going to do something a little different today. We’re going to… Well, I think to frame this up, Bray is essentially going to interview me about making the case to leadership, a topic that we’ve explored elsewhere but we haven’t really talked about too much, you know, here on the podcast.
Bryan Strawser: We’ve had this idea for this episode sitting around in the hopper for quite some time, for a year, but it really comes from my experience growing into being a senior leader at my previous employer and getting to that place where I was the subject matter expert and the leader of the team, and having to go to leadership and often going to business leadership above my direct boss in order to make the case for things you wanted to do in the process of obtaining everything from budgets, expense, and travel, and resources, to headcount, to capital dollars for software or for facilities and emergency operation centers and that kind of thing.
Bryan Strawser: So I don’t know the questions.
Bray Wheeler: It’s a mystery.
Bryan Strawser: Bray has got some role written here that I can see, and we’re just going to have an open conversation around these. I’ll attempt to answer, and I’m sure Bray will have some color commentary along the way.
Bray Wheeler: Let’s do it.
Bryan Strawser: Let’s do it.
Bray Wheeler: So yeah, I just have kind of some basic questions and they’re a little bit open-ended, and kind of let you riff, and I can ask some follow-ups here. But really in terms of making the case to leadership, how is that something that’s… You know, just at the start here, how do you prepare yourself for that?
Bray Wheeler: You’ve been asked to go present on X topic. Does it make a difference in terms of what the topic is and how you prepare, or just generally how are you thinking about it? How are you preparing to go have that conversation, that presentation?
Bryan Strawser: I think the context matters a little bit. I mean certainly at our last employer where we worked together prior to Bryghtpath there were formal processes in presenting to leadership about things. There was a capital expenditure committee that if you were going to ask for money over X dollars out of capital, even though your budget had already been approved you had to go in and present the request, and they were very formal.
Bryan Strawser: It had to be in a certain format. They were originally on big display boards and they eventually went to PowerPoint, but you literally had like three minutes typically to make this case. Now what that meant was the real meetings were the meetings before the meeting with all the members of the expenditure committee to make sure that they had a chance to weigh in, so you’re kind of time lining this stuff out, 30, 60, 45 days to get there.
Bryan Strawser: So setting the formal thing aside, the real decisions were made in small group meetings or one-on-one meetings. It would be my boss and I, but it was my meeting. Like he was there… He or she was there to deal with certain things, but like it was my presentation to that senior leader.
Bryan Strawser: I always kind of thought of this… And I learned this from Rob [Borsch 00:03:22], who I worked for several years. I tried to figure out like what was the catch in there that went along with whatever it was that I was about to do, the thing that would stick with them, right?
Bryan Strawser: So, you know, one of the projects I led in my former life was this just massive, and I mean massive, retrofit of video surveillance equipment from VCRs in the original DVR state. I’m not kidding, VCRs in some stages to IP based video that used, you know, [inaudible] parts, commercial off the shelf systems cobbled together, so to speak, into this video surveillance system.
Bryan Strawser: We definitely had to have a narrative that went along with that, because this was a big spend. This was board-level spend to get the project approved and then the year-over-year spend.
Bryan Strawser: So we really spent a lot of time thinking about like what’s the narrative that we want to tell around this and how do we do our due diligence around… Like what are the questions that we were going to… We started to anticipate the questions we were going to get and how do we make sure we have a good, logical, detail around how we were going to deal with those questions.
Bryan Strawser: There were always questions about the business case. There were always questions about why did you pick these stores versus all stores, and we had to deal with… In some cases, you know, in a corporate leadership team, an executive team that reports to the CEO, there’s usually a pretty good divergence of opinions on not necessarily the vision, but about how to do things and how do you get there.
Bryan Strawser: In some cases, we had folks who were like well you should just retrofit everything to the new system. We were like yeah, I mean but you’re not going to give us $450 million, or whatever. I mean it was some absurd amount of money, but like here’s the logic we got to this.
Bryan Strawser: You tried to present the material in a way that you got questions that you expected versus like well I don’t understand why you picked these stores versus these stores. We could answer that by explaining the methodology, but when somebody started nitpicking, I mean that would be bad. You’re off the topic of like I need the money to do this. Here’s the business case.
Bryan Strawser: I think the other thing related to this that’s important to consider is it’s rare to have a profit generating project out of the support function like corporate security, which was our team, global security at the time.
Bryan Strawser: It’s hard to bring a project forward and say hey, we’re going to make money on this, so you really had to think about the qualitative business case and make sure that those things were tied to the company’s strategic objectives. Like keeping people safe and having a retail environment where women were comfortable shopping at night were core parts of what our mission was because it tied directly to the guest base, the customer base of the company.
Bryan Strawser: So we could emphasize those things because we knew that they would resonate as opposed to don’t look over here where this project loses $40 million in net present value because it doesn’t generate any cash flow. It’s just a spend.
Bryan Strawser: That’s a pretty broad answer to your question, but that’s what we went after, like what’s the narrative, what questions did we think we were going to get, how do we make sure the drafts are crafted material to head off those questions or address head-on, what was the business case, quantitative and qualitative.
Bray Wheeler: So kind of around that, kind of drilling into kind of those components of that, what would you say… What’s the most effected elements kind of within that? So taking like the narrative itself, kind of as you’re laying it out what are those kind of like key pieces in that narrative portion, or like the key moments of your presentation? What do you typically kind of default to as you’re kind of setting it up or you’re making the case?
Bryan Strawser: I mean I tried to craft the narrative in a way that it was fricking obvious as possible that we needed to do this thing. If that meant we had to have… Sometimes we had data that backed up the position, sometimes we didn’t. I really aimed to have like what’s an interesting narrative to address here. That narrative needs to connect to the company’s strategic objectives, and then that we made the case just in a very strong manner to get us the things that we needed.
Bryan Strawser: I think for example… I was trying to think of public-facing things I could talk about. For example, one of the things at our former employer that rolled out about, well more than 10 years ago now, were vehicles for parking lot patrol. I think it was initially Segway and then later the T3 motion vehicles.
Bryan Strawser: You could go… I mean I’m not telling you any trade secret here. They’re out there. There was press when the company did it. The segue project was actually… It got a lot of criticism at first because people were like you’re just buying some toys. Yeah, we’re not. Like, look at the data. Let me show you data behind this because honestly, I didn’t believe it at first, that this was going to work. It was another one of my boss’ crazy ideas that had come up. But you know what? It did work. So here’s the structured analysis that we did and here’s the drop in parking lot crime that occurred because of this.
Bryan Strawser: Now the narrative was about here’s the issue with parking lot crime. Here’s the perception of customers based upon a survey from a team… There was a research team that did that kind of thing. Here’s what our customers tell us is important to them. Safety was like the number two thing on choosing where to shop. Here’s what we’re going to do to drive down the parking lot crime rate.
Bryan Strawser: Essentially it wasn’t crime that occurred in the stores. Crime was occurring in the parking lots. So here’s how we were going to address this. And look, we piloted this in 40 some stores and here are the results we had, which the results were awesome. Actually, after the first year, our results in the actual deployment were better than our pilot.
Bryan Strawser: So it kind of… I mean it led them to a place that just… It was obvious that we should do this. The other thing too is I would say just where it’s possible just take advantage of the fact if you’re working on something cool that you find some cool ways to share that. Honestly, part of what sold this, we took executives for a segue ride.
Bray Wheeler: Really?
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. I mean we took them on a… We brought the segue up to one of the floors where the execs were at and we let them ride it around. So here’s the CEO riding a segue going, “That’s like the coolest thing I’ve ever done.” Great. I’m about to ask you for $1.4 million to buy more, or whatever. I don’t remember what the numbers were. So look for ways to do that.
Bray Wheeler: Almost make it interactive?
Bryan Strawser: Make it interactive. Make it fun. But again, you got to tailor this to your-
Bray Wheeler: The audience?
Bryan Strawser: The audience. Right. Some folks are not into that kind of thing.
Bray Wheeler: So in terms of… So say you’re… You talked a little bit about kind of the pre-meetings, but then going into the kind of official meeting where say the case you’re making doesn’t allow for kind of the pre-meetings. How do you condense, or what are kind of the steps in terms of kind of taking that allotted time that you have… Say you have three minutes to make your case. What are you kind of shooting for in those three minutes?
Bray Wheeler: Sitting around kind of that narrative in the scripting of how you’re making that case, but that becomes a factor for folks in terms of I have this really great story to tell. I can’t possibly tell you that in three minutes. Like how do you get it down to that three minutes to five minutes, whatever it is?
Bryan Strawser: One of my former mentors who still works in the field at a different organization told me once that when you’re talking to folks at this level there are just three things to remember, be good, be brief, be gone.
Bryan Strawser: So three to five minutes I think to ask for capital was pretty much in the amount… Is what I recall from my time there. There’s a little bit of formality at the beginning. We’re requesting blah, blah, blah, blah for whatever, fully funded within our capital budget.
Bryan Strawser: Then I would just switch from there to my narrative. My narrative is I’m going to say about a minute, 45 to 60 seconds on the narrative, like I’ve got a story to tell. I want to paint a vision or paint the problem very clearly. Here’s the solution. Here’s what we’ve seen from the tests or the pilot, or here’s what it’s going to look like, or whatever the answer is to that, and then here are the benefits.
Bryan Strawser: Of course they’re going to have a financial analysis in front of them which might paint an ugly picture. Walkthrough that briefly, or in some cases, Finance came with us and they addressed the finance questions on like on our big stuff. If you had brought the analyst along that was better in trying to explain why was the cash flow low. Well, I don’t know. I’m not-
Bray Wheeler: Yeah. Let the money guy talk money.
Bryan Strawser: This was before I went to business school, so I was a little better at this after getting through accounting and finance classes at the grad level.
Bryan Strawser: Then just the wrap-up, I would try to just end early and have questions, and there are always… There were almost always questions.
Bray Wheeler: What kind of questions did you typically see? What was kind of the most frequent flyer, and then what was kind of the craziest questions?
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. I mean sometimes there were some clarifying questions like so this is for 300 stores? Yes, and the 300 stores are on page four of this tab or whatever. There was always a list of the stores that were impacted or other facilities.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. Sometimes they would ask if so-and-so had seen this, like have you worked through… Yes. Have you done this? Yes. I led the design team for a while and we did a lot of stuff with the folks that built and designed, the architects and the planners. They’re in the room because most of what goes on here were new store approval and remodel approval.
Bryan Strawser: When they were like have you spoken with… Or what is the planning team say, I would just turn to them because they’re in the room. Like your the SVP for architecture, and he would… I mean clearly if he supported it is why we were there. If he didn’t, we never would have made it this far. So yeah, he would get up and [crosstalk] blah, blah, blah, blah.
Bryan Strawser: A good example was security cameras on the outside of stores, right? This company was very particular about the prototype and the look and feel of a facility, and that was one of the things that architecture and planning SVP asked me to fix when I came into that role 13 years ago. It’s like we built these beautiful buildings and then you hang these damn cameras on there.
Bryan Strawser: So we found a way to do this better, right, and then we took it forward for retrofits or whatever. That question came up and I just gave it to him and he goes, “Well, yeah, architecturally we didn’t like it, so we’ve worked with the [inaudible] team to come up with a better solution and this is it, and we fully support it.” It doesn’t get any better than that.
Bray Wheeler: Right.
Bryan Strawser: I have seen… I mean, unfortunately, you know, feedback at that level, it’s just very direct. Sometimes we took things in there and we had to bring them back because somebody didn’t like something, and they don’t like to have conflict amongst each other in the room.
Bryan Strawser: Usually the conflict was financial related, so we’d have to go back and then go back to the CFO and… Mind you, we’ve done that once.
Bray Wheeler: Sure.
Bryan Strawser: But we’d always come out with a better effort I think in the end because the questions were almost always like… They were pretty valid about what to do.
Bryan Strawser: This never happened to me, but I was witness to a number of individuals who just got destroyed in there, I would say because they either didn’t anticipate the questions that they were going to get and therefore didn’t have very good answers, or at least didn’t anticipate some of the themes of the questioning, and then just sometimes stuff comes in that’s just not… It’s just a bad idea and it doesn’t fit with the corporate objectives, but somehow it gets up to we’re going to go to this meeting and just get… It was ugly.
Bryan Strawser: My biggest effort that I ever took in there, the person in front of us… Because you’re in the room for the two presentations in front of you, like in the next at-bat circle, in the on-deck or whatever, and you would… You’d watch the two in front of you, and the person in front of us just got pummeled over something and it just… It was a bad idea and I’m not sure why they got that far, but it got tore up, and then like, “Okay, Bryan Strawser you’re up,” and I’m like oh boy, don’t hang any curveballs.
Bray Wheeler: Right. That was actually… My next question here was just around… You started to touch on this but in terms of making a case what should be avoided? What are the bad elements? What are bad prep ideas that influence or impact the way that these presentations go? Were there common factors in there?
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. I mean there’s a couple. One is like what I mentioned earlier. It’s don’t bring bad ideas forward. You need to have some ways to be able to vet that information. You need to have some ways to vet this information upfront with the trusted partners so that you’re not taking anything that’s just a bad idea, that’s kind of dumb, forward to the group.
Bryan Strawser: You can’t rely upon… I saw someone once make an argument that we needed to do something because they were professionally certified in the field and this is what we should do. I was sitting in the room as somebody who also had the same professional certification and thought that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.
Bryan Strawser: So just because… Don’t make that argument to executives. It will not resonate. You need to do this because I have my certified business professional certification. No, they will not care one iota. To me, those were table stakes to play in this field anyway. That doesn’t make you necessarily better than another person or have better ideas.
Bryan Strawser: So those are things I think you want to avoid. You really have to be able to just get to the point and show that you’ve done your homework, you understand the issue, that you’re putting forward the best possible solution, that you’ve anticipated these questions about scope, scale, severity, spend. Can you narrow it down? Can you do more? All these things have come up to me in the approval conversation about let’s do all stores, let’s do no stores, let’s cut this by half. You need to be able to have that discussion, but you also need to know when you’ve lost the point and just back off and go somewhere else.
Bryan Strawser: I think good practice for this honestly is listening to US Supreme Court arguments because attorneys before the Supreme Court get 15 to 30 minutes to make their case, and they get about a minute into that before the Justices just start in.
Bray Wheeler: Right.
Bryan Strawser: Right? And the questions are like… And the questions are hard. I think that’s good practice for the kind of thinking about what you’re going to have to do in these conversations.
Bray Wheeler: How that narrative works?
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Bray Wheeler: How do you know… So going back to your kind of the bad idea point, how do you know what’s a bad idea, given that if I’m presenting a case to you as leaders and I think this is the greatest thing I’ve ever thought of, how am I warning myself that it’s a bad idea? What are those steps in there that should be taken for sure kind of practically for faults?
Bryan Strawser: I think it is where you need good feedback partners. You need to make sure that you’re working with a good leader that can guide you on these things, serve as a partner who’s been down this road before. I think having peers or others that have had to do this and have them give you thoughts and ideas about what has and has not worked for them. You need someone that is willing to look at and talk through your idea and give you insight and input on where should you go with this. I think that’s helpful.
Bryan Strawser: I had a mixed bag there. I always had leaders who were very good at this particular topic. When I was a manager, my directors were really good at this. When I was the director, my chief security officer and the VPE was really good at this, although he would never go and do it himself. We always had to go and ask for capital, and that’s fine. Sometimes he was in the room and sometimes he was like, “Have fun. Let me know how it goes.”
Bryan Strawser: But I think you need those folks just for your general professional development, but I think those are good folks to bounce things off of to make sure you’re not just coming forward with a really dumb idea.
Bray Wheeler: Do you have to go seek out like a really tough critic in some cases, or not always, or not necessarily?
Bryan Strawser: I think you should have… I don’t know if you necessarily need a tough critic, but I think you need to find somebody that’s willing, to be honest with you about feedback. I had a former boss that I loved working for, but he was very challenging.
Bryan Strawser: I like that from the standpoint that he thought I wasn’t so good at things I thought I was good at, so it made me better, right?
Bray Wheeler: Sure.
Bryan Strawser: He would shy away from… I always went to him for advice when I wasn’t working for him anymore. I never really went to him for advice when I was reporting to him. But I would go to him and we’d laugh and we’d kind of talk through something and he would be like, “Okay, well since you asked for my advice let me be honest with you,” and then I would just kind of pucker. Then, “I think you’re wrong and here’s how I think you should think about doing this.” So I found that helpful.
Bray Wheeler: Yeah. Kind of the last question, if you were giving the advice to somebody walking in the room with you’re being that kind of honest feedback partner, what… I know you’ve mentioned kind of be good, be quick, be out. What advice would you give somebody walking into that room or setting up that presentation to go forward, just kind of baseline advice?
Bryan Strawser: Well, one is I would repeat that advice, in this conversation you need to be good, be brief, be gone. If they’re going to ask questions, they’re going to ask. Give them some time to process and do so.
Bryan Strawser: The second… Okay, some of this is cultural to your organization too, so take this with the appropriate grain of salt, but if you bring material, the material is an appendix to what you’re going to have to say. If the material just reflects what you’re saying there’s no need for the meeting, you just give it to them.
Bryan Strawser: I hated meeting where somebody handed me something and if I read that I knew the whole story and then there was no point in the conversation happening. I know that sounds kind of dickish, but I think it’s true. If you don’t have a lot of time in your day to do stuff, then that’s going to come up like that.
Bryan Strawser: I think you really want to think about how you’re going to use the time. If you’ve got 30 minutes you should plan on talking for 10 or 15, and get through the one or two big things that you need to get out of that conversation. Have a leave behind in order to explain that.
Bryan Strawser: But really think about the material that you’re bringing. If it’s a widget, bring a picture of the widget, or bring the widget for them to play with, right, and talk through the what and the why and how is this important. I would think of it in that way.
Bryan Strawser: Otherwise, I think we’ve covered some of the other preparations, right? I mean think about your narrative and the questions you’re going to get and that kind of thing.
Bray Wheeler: So last question… You know, I promise-
Bryan Strawser: The last, last question.
Bray Wheeler: … the last, last question. Does it make a difference in terms of what the topic of the presentation is in terms of how you’re setting that up? We’ve talked a lot about kind of capital and business expense and kind of making the business case, but what if it’s something issue related, incident related, reputationally related like it’s an actual event or incident that’s gone on or something that is going on or set to occur?
Bray Wheeler: Does it make a difference in terms of how you’re kind of teeing up that conversation or is it really kind of the same principles as making the other case, you just have to… You’re customizing that narrative in a different fashion?
Bryan Strawser: I think it does change the conversation a little bit in terms of what becomes important. I had a lot of discussions with senior leaders about things that have happened. A lesson that I learned early on is that you should assume they don’t know anything about the incident in the context around the incident and the situation around the incident, so you need to be prepared to share what’s pertinent and then let them ask questions about that.
Bray Wheeler: Is that even if they’ve been included on communication or-
Bryan Strawser: I never trusted anyone else’s… To be clear, since you’ve worked for me, I trusted people’s communication on my team because I knew what the command center was publishing. I didn’t trust any other person’s conversation, because I don’t know if they’ve given them the context that as the crisis leader I thought they needed to know.
Bray Wheeler: Sure.
Bryan Strawser: So I would want to make sure that they knew and had the context that I thought was important. And you know what? If they know it, they’re just going to cut me off, then that’s fine. I can deal with that. I’ll set my ego aside and take that for what it is and go on, but I think it’s tough to put them in a position where they need to make decisions if they don’t have what you think is the strategic context of what’s going on.
Bryan Strawser: A good example of this is… This is the first time that he had done this, but the CEO called me in the morning Hurricane Sandy made landfall. I was in an off-site leadership meeting and he hadn’t gotten the update that he was expecting, which was kind of miscommunication on our part, but he started asking some questions about Sandy and the impact and what we didn’t know.
Bryan Strawser: We didn’t know the answer to any of his questions because the thing had just made landfall in the early morning hours and we weren’t going to get access to the locations for several more hours, like till after lunchtime or so in Minnesota.
Bryan Strawser: So I was just very clear with him about here’s where the storm is at and here’s kind of the stage we’re at and here’s when we’re going to know something, which is later today, and we may not have a very good picture until tomorrow because there’s going to be some areas like… Which it turned out to be true, New York City, New Jersey, and Long Island, where we’re probably not going to get access to the stores until tomorrow.
Bryan Strawser: We might have done… I think we did an overflight, we did some [inaudible] coverage to get some ideas, but you don’t know until you get in and start looking around.
Bryan Strawser: I was just very clear with him about like here’s the context that I think you need to know right now. Here’s where it’s at. Here’s who we’re working with. You made it clear that you want to know more, so we’ll communicate with you more frequently about what’s going on and you can call me at any time. If he had talked to any other leader in the organization, I don’t think he would have gotten that context, but because I was the crisis leader I was able to kind of explain that.
Bryan Strawser: So that context in the course of an incident, that’s important to know, and I would start off with the assumption that they don’t know anything about that.
Bray Wheeler: Is there anything in terms of, thinking about the incident, that you want… You kind of talked about offering up kind of call me anytime, here’s the next update. Is there anything else that you always like to leave that leader or leaders with kind of in those conversations as you’re making the case, like kind of your final thought or offering off that conversation? Is there anything additional that is important to kind of leave with them?
Bryan Strawser: I think it depends on the context. The closure I always left leaders with on a crisis was if you have questions that our normal communication isn’t answering please call me or call the command center or call my boss to get that context. It’s important to me that you have a few views on what’s going on.
Bryan Strawser: But if I was wrapping up a conversation about something I was asking for, I would probably… I would wrap that up with an additional ask around here’s… You know, again I want to reiterate here’s why I think this is the right thing to do, and if you have questions then I would love the opportunity to answer those or something like that.
Bray Wheeler: Kind of a final summary?
Bryan Strawser: Kind of your final summary, your final ask. The sales language is you’re supposed to ask three times for the thing, so ask for the sale. That’s kind of where I always got to at the end of those.
Bray Wheeler: Awesome. Those are all the questions I had. That covered it. Thank you.
Bryan Strawser: That was fun, except for not knowing the questions.
Bray Wheeler: Yeah, and my final three questions.
Bryan Strawser: That’s it for this edition of the Managing Uncertainty podcast. Tune in next week for another new episode. Thanks for listening.