Selling your ideas key to professional advancement

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on March 22, 2016

Have you ever given any thought to how to sell your ideas to others, and the most effective way to do so? The “art of selling” is usually associated with the selling of a product or service. This is much too narrow. We are always selling our ideas to others. Our ability to get others to buy into our ideas and initiatives and rally them to our cause is a prime determinant for a successful career.

On March 9, I attended the Drexel University College of Engineering dinner honoring Phil Rinaldi, CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions. I have written about Rinaldi in previous articles. He rescued two large oil refineries in South Philadelphia from being demolished. By keeping the refineries open, Rinaldi saved over 1,200 high paying refinery jobs, avoiding the loss of an industry that provides important diversity to Philadelphia’s business base, heavily weighted towards “eds” and “meds.” Reinvestment in these refineries also provides a strong platform for increased business activity and employment in the Philadelphia region.

In Rinaldi’s address to the audience comprising a wide variety of individuals at various levels within their organizations as well as engineering students, he stated a principle that should be self-evident, but for many is not recognized or apparent: No matter what your profession, no matter what your level within your organization, you are always selling your ideas.

Many writers on this subject quote Lee Iacocca, the former chairman of the board of Chrysler Corporation, who said, “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” How true.

Rinaldi sold the idea to his private equity partners that acquiring and operating these refineries would be a good investment. Most of us are not selling such large-scale initiatives to our colleagues – we are selling relatively smaller ideas and initiatives, ones that are formulated and proposed in organizations every day.

Leaders cannot just announce a new initiative and expect it to be adopted without convincing those within their organization that there is merit to their idea. Depending on the initiative, they may need the support of their peers or their direct reports. Leaders need to help create a sense of need and a feeling of ownership in employees for the initiative so they are committed to its success. So, how do you sell your ideas? How do you influence others to pursue your initiatives?

Your idea should focus on the needs of customers, the organization or the individual to whom you are selling.

Your idea is more likely to have better reception if you show how it benefits your customers or clients, improves a business process or fulfills a need or solves a problem of the individual to whom you are selling the idea. Does your initiative build competitive position? What is in it for them or others – financial gain, societal benefit, or fulfilling their desire to leave a legacy to future generations? Find out, and position your idea to garner interest and commitment.

Have you fully evaluated the idea, and can you articulate responses to probing questions?

Some questions one should consider are: What are the benefits of the idea? Who will benefit? Are there any risks, and are they acceptable risks? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Is there a cost to implement the idea, and if so, is the cost within the ability of the organization to absorb? What are the alternatives, including the alternative of doing nothing? What are the risks of doing nothing, and are those costs too high to bear? What happens if the idea fails?

Are you fully convinced of the merits of your idea?

If you are not convinced of the merits of the idea, you will never have sufficient conviction to convince others. If the idea fails, you will be in-part held accountable because your name is on it. Therefore, you need to be convinced that the idea will work. If the idea is a good one but there are some issues, talk those through to minimize risk.

Approach the individual to whom you want to sell an idea when they are not distracted.

Don’t raise the subject unless you feel that you can have their full attention. Watch for eye contact. Not maintaining eye contact is an indication they are not interested and not absorbing what you are saying. If you sense that the message is not impactful to the individual you are speaking with, change the messaging. Be aware of how you and your message are being received.

If you need to sell a group of people on an initiative, first speak to group members individually.

By explaining the initiative in one-on-one conversations, you have a chance to gauge reactions and address any concerns. You might also get good advice on modifying the initiative to increase its attractiveness or probability of success. By introducing the initiative first to the group, the group may respond with a negative reaction without individual thoughtful consideration.

Do you have credibility? Does the team trust you?

When you are selling ideas, you are selling yourself. Do people have confidence in you? Within any organization, those with the highest credibility and trust will have an easier time having their ideas considered and accepted. How do you build credibility? Develop a reputation and a track record of success with previous initiatives. How do you earn trust? Be transparent, admit failures, don’t blame others for your mistakes and always meet your commitments to others.

Selling others on your ideas and initiatives is a skill not formally taught in college but should be, since the ability to sell your ideas and influence others is a core skill.

There are people who don’t want to engage in process of selling ideas, or don’t have ideas to sell. Some people just don’t like change, and don’t realize that change is a constant in life. This is unfortunate. These individuals are missing out on an opportunity to influence their organization. When they are searching for their next job, they will not have in their background what is most valued by a new employer – a track record of contributions that drove their former organization forward.

Stanley W. Silverman is the founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a writer and speaker, advising C-suite executives about issues and on cultivating a leadership culture within their organizations. Stan is Vice Chairman of the Board of Drexel University and a director of Friends Select School and Faith in the Future. He is the former President and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Website:

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