Question: How can I persuade senior executives on projects without clear ROI?

My employer deals with sensitive, people related data. It is a group of mid-sized companies with ambitions to become a major player in the industry. Hiring me as the custodian of data and processes, is their investment in that future.

However, I feel that my role "needs teeth." My recommendations to the executive team relating to data security, standardizing operating procedures, password controls, etc... after months of hard work are frequently dismissed as "sky is falling" scenarios.

CEO wants me to drive consensus among the executives, before the executive reviews (without her support)... while I feel their performance metrics have nothing in them to support my role, and none of my projects have a clear ROI anyway.

Thanks for your advice. I really need to change the situation or exit.

9 Expert Insights

My gut reaction to any business-related question like "how can I persuade...without ROI" is don't.  But that wouldn't be fair, especially since you included the word "clear."  The point is that some projects have ROI; they're just hard to measure.

So in that case, you need to see what the CEO/organization values in their terms, as they express it.  Also understand what they want to avoid.  And how important are these things...what are they willing to to have/avoid them, especially from a risk perspective.

Then, probably in a separate conversation, think about how your function impacts these outcomes, and specific projects you might or might not undertake, and their impact in the dimensions the organization perceives as ones they'll act on.  Review that with the person who it was easiest to talk with to see how you can still better communicate.  Then take that around and see what happens.  You might use tools like Strategic Choice Structuring as well, to look at alternatives like having your function or not.

I'd also lean against a solution that requires putting metrics in performance appraisals for people to take your job seriously.  If you HAVE to do that, you've already lost...the score just hasn't been posted yet.  Better that it come out as a secondary means to  reinforce what the organization now recognizes is a valuable function.

There are plenty of projects and initiatives that no clear ROI … yet are essential to achieving overall company objectives, creating the right culture, customer experience and brand identity. I am especially concerned by your lists of projects with things like: data security, operating procedures and password controls. These are basic and essential non-negotiable systems for all companies.

The telling statement you shared was "...without her (the leader) support." As a consultant, you cannot "fix" a company starting just below the leader. The mess happened on the leader's watch  — and expecting a consultant (or any one else) to clean it up without the leader changing his/her thinking and behavior is a pipe dream. Nothing is going to change without the leader taking ownership in the mess and being part of the solution. Otherwise, there is no reason for anyone in the company to listed to or buy into the projects and change initiatives you've been hired to implement. Simply put, you are in a consulting dilemma where you are getting paid to be ineffective. Pretty crazy … but pretty common.

The culture of this company is already contaminated. The behaviors (enabled by the leader) are already imbedded. The company begging for a culture shift. A culture shift begins with the leader and leadership team having ABSOLUTE CLARITY on what kind of company they're building and what near- and long-term outcomes they seek. Absolute clarity on the outcomes establishes the non-negotiables that must occur. Those non-negotiables will include many projects and initiatives that have no clear cut ROI.

It's time for the leader of this company to commit to some No-Compromise Leadership thinking and behavior. The longer she enables the wrong behavior … the harder it will be to clean up the mess.

If most projects had a clear ROI (as measured by $), leaders wouldn’t get the big bucks they do because decisions would be easy & judgment would not be required.

Getting approval of your projects is a combination of your personal credibility, how compelling a presentation you make, and the appetite of the decision makers. Let’s explore the first & third.

To have personal credibility it’s important to have a relationship with the decision makers that is not based just on asking for approval of projects or presentations in formal meetings. Informal, 1:1 meetings with the executives where you are asking questions about their business & exploring where you can help them be more successful in what they are trying to achieve helps build your credibility. Being able to speak to the decision makers in the language of their business also helps to demonstrate that you understand them. Before you ask for the sale of a big project, it is helpful to have demonstrated some small wins. I always encourage my clients in transition to look for some early wins that are relatively easy to accomplish to build credibility for later, large wins. When asking for approval of a single project, it helps to first have developed an overall strategy for your function that is linked to the business needs and to have obtained support for that strategy. Then, when asking approval for a single project, you can demonstrate how the project fits into the overall strategy rather than presenting it as a “one-off” initiative.

If the steps above don’t build an appetite among decision makers for your projects, you have to be content to go where you are allowed to play or find another organization where the leaders are more interested in accomplishing the things you want to do. Peter Drucker once said; “Every decision is made by the person who has the power to make the decision. Make peace with that.” He did not say that the decision maker was always the most rational, logical, or intelligent leader. I would add to Peter Drucker’s wise words; “or leave.”

JIm, Neil and Mark all have great answers so I'll go in a different direction.  It sounds like the culture is a bit of a misfit for you. If you have to work so hard to get people's attention and buy in then what I really wonder is what makes you want to play Sisyphus?  Because it occurs to me that you may find an answer to it this time, but if the system and personnel don't like to play the game the way you need to play it in order to fulfill your role, then one can only bang one's head against the wall for so long before the pain of that overrides whatever will to succeed you may have.

As  a person who advocates great fits in companies where people are used well, valued and appreciated in their role. I've never seen the wisdom of forcing oneself in a situation where it's clear it's not the best environment....and with respect to executives who don't really want to play ball, I never try to drag anyone kicking and screaming to success as it looks like you have to do there. Either they want you on the team and how you best perform or they don't. In which case it might well keep your personal stress level down, and your satisfaction up, to find a place that appreciates what you can do.

Your question pertains to how you can persuade senior executives on projects (of yours) without a clear ROI?  As others have responded already, not all ROIs are of a direct financial nature.  It seems like your position was created to add stability or even a competitive edge to your organization on behalf of your clients … thus the ROI.

There’s another ‘red flag’ issue that seems apparent in your inquiry.  The CEO decides to add a dimension to the organization’s process in order to remain a value to their clients and to enable them to continue to grow and thrive in the future.  In this case they added you with your responsibilities.  This gives rise to two potential problems:

1. Too often what the organization fails to do is get complete buy-in from the rest of the leadership team who may approve the idea however don't expect it to have any impact on their personal responsibilities.  As a result, you often feel like you're fighting an uphill and unappreciated battle.  

2. Rather than breaking apart the current process and reassembling around the new addition (your position), it is just 'slapped on' to the end of the way business has been done.  Not only does this fail to get the most out of the added 'step' ... it also does nothing to underline or build support for this change.

As a coach, and although you are already on the job, I would encourage the CEO to bring the team together in a session designed to:
1. Get buy-in from the full team as to the importance and value of creating your position
2. Achieve team alignment of the full team around the need for the position
3. Address concerns of any leader on the team to reach a satisfactory conclusion.
4. Gain team respect as to why YOU are the one best qualified for the position
5. Make certain all understand how this addition might/will impact their own effort … willingly

If there’s an unwillingness to do the above, you always have your own alternative action if the challenge, as it stands, is too great.

Two words... Business Impact.  All projects have business impact - you are recommending it for a reason and the reason is not always financial or solely financial.  Include the potential quantifiable results.  but first, highlight the benefits of the project that are more tangible or certain.

"If most projects had a clear ROI (as measured by $), leaders wouldn't get the big bucks they do because decisions would be easy & judgment would not be required." Kudos for that, Jim.

So, yes, a clear, compelling, ROI makes decisions easy. Your job, it seems, though, is to implore your CEO to consider a less-than-easy decision. To that end, it's often helpful to consider what your CEO "listens" for. (Some bosses listen for problems to be solved; others listen for opportunities to leverage.)

If your boss listens for problems to be solved, framing your initiative as an opportunity will likely get you nowhere -- even with a clear, compelling, ROI. But if a problem exists that's creating significant and ongoing risk, the probability of a listener-for-problems-type boss listening to your concerns dramatically increases -- especially if you can show how the problem, if left unmitigated, is poised to significantly increase organizational (and political) risk/exposure.

That the CEO wants consensus just means that you need to notice what your peers listen for, as well, and talk with each of them, individually, in those terms before having them vet your ideas as a group. Consider it "advance" work, setting the stage, building consensus, etc. If your recommendations are important enough to you, doing so should not be a problem.

Hope this helps.

Here's another approach...  give them what they want.

Quantify your scenarios.  Clearly, there is a significant financial impact to a data breach.  Everything from losing market share due to loss of credibility to a complete collapse of the company.  Do a bit of research and determine the likelihood of a variety of scenarios, then develop an overview which shows the probability of the various financial downfalls.

You'll either prove that they are right or you are right.

I'm a speech coach, a presentation coach.  I develop messages and performances.  I get hired all the time without there being any clear ROI.  Mitigating a client's risk of looking bad when giving a speech at a big conference or a high stakes board meeting is usually return enough.  

It seems to me that people will support a project if it stands to  thwart a  potential threat to their security or reputation.  They may not be sure of the return on investment, but if the cost feels  reasonable, they will buy the protection.