As innovation leaders, it can be frustrating to explain your big vision only to be met with blank or skeptical stares from other c-suite executives. It’s absolutely critical to get stakeholders on board, since their support will be the difference between smooth sailing and rough waters, and yet the hardest part seems to be getting them to understand the vision. But don’t worry – there’s an easy way to talk about your bold plans with all your stakeholders.

As we interviewed and surveyed over 100 enterprise innovation leaders for our Enterprise Innovation Playbook, trends emerged across the board when it came to stakeholder communication. In this blog, we’re detailing the strategy that innovation leaders need to take when talking about innovation in the c-suite. 

A technicolor struggle

Lisa Wardlaw, an enterprise financial services innovation leader, describes the process of innovation thinking as “technicolor.” She explained in our interview that innovation leaders often think in very creative terms. The problem is that very few other people in traditional enterprises do. That doesn’t mean they are any less smart, it’s simply a different mode of thinking. 

The critical element of this step is to understand your thought patterns versus those of everyone else in the c-suite. If you only communicate in the ways you are comfortable or most used to, you might be speaking over someone’s head or in a way that doesn’t resonate with them. Since a big part of getting stakeholders on board is having them understand your strategy, this small mistake could turn into a huge misunderstanding, misalignment, or miscommunication. 

Communicate with empathy

Once you have a grasp of how you think versus others, it’s time to turn up the empathy. While enterprises need innovation to survive, your shining strategy could be interpreted as lost profits and shrinking resources for other c-suite professionals and P&L holders. As you think about explaining your strategy to them, make sure you do the following: 

Ask the right questions

When thinking about how to pitch your ideas to the CEO and other leaders, frame it in the context of their challenges and problems. Here are thought-starter questions to consider: 

  • What’s keeping them up at night?
  • Who is pressuring them – and for what result? 
  • What “don’t know what you don’t know” threats will affect them?
  • What they believe the role of innovation is to solve their problems? 

Make it about their problems

When Allyson Laurance, Head of Strategic Partnerships and Innovation (North America) for Citi, thinks about getting peers on board, it’s a matter of involvement. When you talk with stakeholders, make sure you’re engaging at the level of their problems, not your plans. Identify 5-10 key challenges affecting each leader’s profitability and plan to tackle challenges that are easiest for you or help the greatest number of executives.

“Make stakeholder communication part of the process,” said Allyson. “Involve stakeholders early on during the problem-identification phase.”

Always provide an action step

Most P&L-leaders have tons on their plate, so make it easy for them to support you by providing a clear action step with an explanation of the benefits they’ll get from taking action. 

This is a tactic that Orchid Bertelsen, Head of Digital Innovation at Nestle USA, said is critical for getting buy-in.

“Provide the action step – make it easy,” said Orchid. “You always need a specific ask with an explanation of what you will accomplish once they give you what you asked for.”

Leverage multiple forms of communication

Dan Regalado, VP, Global Technology Transformation & Strategic Partner Management, Walgreens Boots Alliance, found that getting buy-in required multiple forms of communication including written updates, celebrations, and verbal communication. Specifically, look at leveraging any existing communication channels like newsletters or intranets, as that helps the innovation agenda become more embedded in the organization.

“It’s very easy to forget what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” said Dan. “It’s important to invest time in those reminders and points of realignment and what are the goals and progress that we’re making.”

Innovation leaders have two roles

One misconception we learned in our research is the idea that innovation leaders are solely focused on building the future. While this is a big part of their role, the other side of their jobs is to show near-term progress. This is the anchor that helps with stakeholder communication the most. If innovation leaders only think about the big, bright, technicolor future state, they risk alienating c-suite leaders who get defensive as they fear for their profits and their jobs. 

By leaning into the “second” job of showing near-term progress, innovation leaders can break down their big strategy into smaller steps that demonstrate how you are indeed a partner of the c-suite, not the newbie hired to replace everyone.


To find out more about getting executive buy-in and driving excitement internally, check out our enterprise innovation playbook Stories from the Trenches: Sustainable Innovation in the Corporate World.

If you’re looking for guidance on or have any questions about your Corporate Innovation strategy, contact Olivia[email protected]