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Getting to yes: persuading your executives to buy-into a simulation

August 4, 2021

Getting to yes: persuading your executives to buy-into a simulation

Critical takeaways

  • Simulations and training are excellent ways to prepare your organization for a crisis but their benefit might not be evident to your leadership.
  • We’ve found that a needs-driven approach, based on a gap analysis, with a clear explanation of the budget, time, team, and topic will usually help sway executives to approve your exercise.
  • You can also stress the RoI, what’s in it for them and, in the worst case, get a little dramatic to persuade them to buy into this vital training.

Note – there’s a lot more info in the video so if you want to explore these ideas in more depth, it’s worth watching this after you’ve read the article

As crisis communicators, we understand the importance of training, particularly simulation exercises, when it comes to preparing your team and organization for crises. We know that there are skills to be developed, relationships to build, and behaviors to adopt. Training and simulations also help everyone understand the organization’s chain of command and its values: the basic building blocks for speed – and success – in a crisis. So when it comes to agreeing to (or paying for) training and simulations, you don’t need any convincing.

Unfortunately, the rest of your organization might not feel the same way, particularly your leadership.

Make your request stand out

Instead of being bought into and enthusiastic about a simulation, you might find your leadership takes some persuasion. After all, your request for time, budget, and, most importantly, attention is just one of many that your leaders will receive.

We see this challenge all the time when we hear communicators struggle to convince their leadership to take people away from their day-to-day responsibilities to spend time on crisis training or exercises. Getting buy-in is hard, even though this isn’t a frivolous activity: this preparation will make the organization more resilient and better able to navigate a crisis if one occurs. 

Nevertheless, if a leadership team or CEO don’t buy in to the idea of crisis training, it has a very low chance of success.

So how can you change their minds?

We’ve seen five things that you need to address as part of a convincing that will help get your executives to buy into the training or simulation you’re planning. 

Have clear objectives

Before you try to convince anyone else of the importance and value of the simulation, you need to be clear yourself. That means starting with a gap analysis of your current state of readiness compared with where you want or need to be. That will help you identify the gaps that need to be filled, which can then be turned into clear, SMART objectives for the training. Linking the training benefits to deficiencies in the organization is a critical first step of successful training and is key to getting your leadership to agree to your proposal.

Budget, time, team, and topic

Next, you need to outline the basic parameters of the training or exercise and the main things we see executives concerned about are budget, time, team, and topic.

Budget: Decisions are often heavily influenced by cost, so get the budget out there as soon as possible. However, ensure that you’re up-front with all the associated costs. Don’t, for example, quote the fee for a team to deliver the exercise but omit travel costs. That will make it seem like you’re pulling a bait and switch when the total cost emerges later on. 

Time: Similar to costs, explain the total time commitment that you’re asking for. If you’re planning an exercise that lasts for half a day but also need time for pre-briefings and refresher training, ensure that everything is included in your timeline. That helps people understand how much time they need to clear in their calendars and also gets them to commit to the whole event instead of just parachuting into the exercise without preparing.

Teams: Explain who the main participants will be and who has a supporting role in the simulation. In more extensive simulations, you’ll need to ask subject matter experts to help as role players, and you might need to mobilize additional staff to ramp up social media monitoring. Again, be clear about who needs to be involved.

Note – with each of the budget, time, and team factors, you might not always get 100% of what you want, so ensure that you can explain the implications of cutting back on any of these areas if you have to compromise to get buy-in.

Topic – finally, give executives a general sense of the kind of situation they will be facing in the exercise. You don’t want to give too much away, and you certainly don’t want to build a scenario by committee but let people know the kind of scenario you have in mind and why. You might feel that there’s a disconnect between your operational and crisis response teams, so an operational theme might be appropriate. At other times, you might want to practice the response to a specific threat which you can explain in broad terms. Tying the scenario to a gap or a particular threat again helps reinforce that the training is specific and targeted which increases the chances of getting buy-in.

Write it down

Once you have all this information mapped out, we always recommend writing it down instead of trying to make your case purely from memory. You might not even have a chance to put your points across in person, so a written explanation will help you make your case clearly and succinctly. You should use whatever format your organization favors, but if there’s no agreed format, a tool we find very useful is called the Impact Filter, part of the Strategic Coach toolset. The Impact Filter helps you lay everything out in a simple, logical sequence, including the overall objective and a statement of what success looks like. It also includes an explanation of the potential hurdles you might face and how you plan to overcome these. 

RoI or What’s in it for me?

Laying out a clear vision of what the training will do and the essential elements of budget, time, team, and topic can often be enough to persuade a leadership team to sign off on your training.

But sometimes it’s not.

Again, even though we can see the benefits of training as crisis communicators, you might still have executives who need additional motivation to get involved. This is when you need to highlight the RoI or, less formally, explain what’s in it for them. 

Each of these approaches should stress the benefits of the simulation, but RoI will be more objective, focused on the gaps that the exercise will fill or the enhancements to the organization’s crisis readiness. While RoI is more organization-focused, you can also appeal to people’s more base instincts and explain how they will benefit personally from the training. You might want to stress how this will put them ahead of their industry peers or curry favor with the Board. You might quietly remind a CEO of how concerned they were in a previous crisis and note that this training would better prepare them for future events. 

Don’t hesitate to be a little dramatic

If there’s a compelling story from an industry peer that helps you make your case, use it. We’ve also seen crisis communicators mock up a newspaper front page, add their firm’s name to the headline, and show this to executives, asking, ‘how do you think we would respond to this?’ That might feel extreme – and it might be in some cases – but it forcibly makes the point.

Finally, you can also ask your CEO a version of the ‘R’ question: ‘imagine we complete this training and have a crisis, but you’re happy with how we did when we look back a year from now. Why are you pleased with our performance?’

That gets them to cast a vision for what a successful crisis response looks like. You can model the training around what they are looking for in addition to the gaps that you identified at the outset. 

Investing in success

You know that your organization needs training and exercises to improve its crisis readiness, but not everyone will share your view. Hopefully, these tips will allow you to get the buy-in you need to go ahead and bring your leadership team along. 

Because you’re not just getting them to say yes to your request: you’re showing them how the simulation will enhance the organization’s readiness, close gaps, reduce their risks, make them pull ahead of industry peers, and maybe even enhance their standing with the Board. So by the end of the process, you should find that your leadership is as fully bought into the training and exercise as you are.

Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.