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How to Stop Selling Your Ideas and Start Enrolling People in Them

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Think about the last time you made a big purchase like a car, a major appliance or a mattress. With the possible exception of the car, there’s a pretty good chance you bought the product online after reading a lot of customer reviews. Why was that the case? Of course, one reason is that Amazon and other online retailers make it easy to buy things online. Another likely reason is that you would do anything to avoid an aggressive sales pitch at the dealership or the store.

There are very few of us who like to be sold to. It feels insincere and competitive because our interests rarely align with that of the sales person. A win for you is great value for your money. Unless the incentives are thoughtfully considered, a win for the salesperson is to maximize the money you spend. Making a major purchase in this kind of scenario is usually a stress-inducing experience.

Even though most of us don’t like to be sold to, many of us regularly engage in selling our ideas or initiatives at work. And how effective is that? All too often, the answer is, “Not very.” I was recently reminded of a better way to make progress on your most important priorities—don’t sell, enroll.

That idea comes from Donagh Herlihy who, when I interviewed him for the first edition of The Next Level back in 2005, was the CIO for Avon. These days, Donagh is the chief technology officer for the restaurant company, Bloomin’ Brands. I’ve been reading through my interviews with him and other executives for the third edition of The Next Level that’s coming out this Fall. He offers a lot of wisdom on the difference between selling and enrolling in this quote from the book:

“One thing I constantly coach people on is enrolling others. Your job as an executive is not to sell ideas; it’s to enroll people in ideas. People get kind of resistant to being sold a strategy. The way to go is to bring them in early, enroll them, get them engaged and then there is no need for salesmanship.”

Here are five simple steps you can take to act on Herlihy’s advice about why you should quit selling and start enrolling:

Involve others early. True enrollment requires trust. You build trust by bringing people in early. I used to have a boss who insisted that my peers and I not spring ideas on her that had been “grown in a dark closet like mushrooms.” What she was looking for was the opportunity to influence the big initiatives before they became fully baked. If she wasn’t involved or at least aware early on, she didn’t buy what we were selling. Involvement is the first step to enrollment.

Receive more than you transmit. As a communicator, you can either be a transmitter or a receiver. If all you want to do is sell your ideas, go ahead and transmit away. If you want to enroll people in your ideas, put more emphasis on receiving. Ask open ended questions that give your colleagues space to think out loud and share what is most important to them. Show that you’re processing what they’re sharing. Incorporate their needs and ideas into yours. That’s another behavior that builds the trust that enrollment requires.

Look for mutual interests. Life and business don’t have to be win/lose propositions. Look for the win/win opportunities that come from identifying mutual interests. Ask yourself, What’s in it for them? and then verify or improve upon your idea through collaborative conversations.

Share what you know. Don’t play your cards close to your vest. Share what you know and put it out there. You’ll either influence your colleagues’ thinking or you’ll learn what their concerns are (or both).

Create a shared vision. Co-create a shared vision of the future that connects with people’s sense of purpose. Work with your colleagues to sketch out a picture of what the future looks like when you implement your improved-upon idea.

You may have noticed that these steps lead to more of a collaborative approach to leadership than a heroic approach. It requires more patience but yields more sustainable and meaningful results.

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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