If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you have an interest in money. That's a good thing. That's what we want to talk about. It's something that I've had to focus on at Adobe ever since my first day here 10 years ago.
When I started, the Government Relations group at Adobe was very small. So there was an opportunity to grow it, which meant we had to align it with the goals and priorities of the organization. Here is my advice to you on how to do it.
If you have ever had any difficulty getting a project or even just your annual budget approved and you work in government affairs, you are not alone. This is a common issue that many departments deal with.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the simple fact that your background, education, and training are all significantly different from, say, your colleagues in marketing or sales.
The good news is that every year projects that are outside of the normal budget process do get approved, which means that the only question then is, how can you make sure that yours is one of them?
Why Most Government Affairs Budget Requests Are Denied
Just for a moment, take off your government hat and put on your business hat.
Sure, you understand the federal appropriations process. You know that pet projects are often approved if one person wants them enough. You know that many departments’ budgets just toll over year to year.
This used to be the case in the corporate world, but it has not been like this for some time. Most companies have transitioned to zero-based budgeting. You have to build your case for money every single year, and whatever is not spent goes away.
You have to justify every dollar. Resources are scarce and the people who make budget decisions have 15-30 different projects and things they can fund. The only way to get approval is to be one of the top 3-5.
This means you are actively competing against every other team in the entire organization. In the end, only the programs that are in tight alignment with the company’s vision and goals are approved.
I find that the problem is that Government Affairs professionals usually come to budget meetings wearing their government hats and not their business hats. They talk about policy and expect everyone else in the room to regard policy as important. If they talk about the company at all, it’s usually around vaguely worded risks from regulations. They almost never get specific. They almost never tie the policy goals back to the company goals.
Your colleagues in Sales & Marketing talk about new customer acquisition. Your colleagues in R&D talk about the long-term vision for the company. Your colleagues in Product talk about their annual plan that will help with new customer acquisition and existing customer retention. If all you’re talking about is policy, you’re not going to carry the day.
This is why most requests from Government Affairs are denied. Nobody in the room was convinced of the strategic benefit of the project.
So let’s talk about how to fix it.
Creating A Business Plan
In order to get what you want, you need a business plan.
Some of you may be thinking, “I can’t write a business plan. I’m just a government person. I don’t know about business.”
I am here to tell you to stop that right now. You absolutely can write a business plan. You need to write a business plan. Your colleagues in every other department are writing them. That’s how they get their projects approved. That’s how you’ll get yours approved.
Admittedly, part of this is psychological. What really matters is the content, but by titling it a business plan, you place yourself (and your readers) into the right frame of mind. This isn’t just some off-the-cuff request; it’s a real plan with a real business goal in mind.
It’s actually not that different from the kinds of work you create as a lobbyist. You’re trying to convince a group of readers to do something. In order to convince them, you have to carefully craft arguments that will win them over, get the right meetings to build support, and make sure that when the vote happens, you already know what the outcome will be.
I tell my staff all the time that what we’re doing is lobbying for money. It’s just that simple.
Step 1: Map Your Stakeholders
A lot of people like to skip this step. However, it is very important, something you should all know from lobbying work. You’re building a network, and we need a broad base of support in order to get your project approved.
We do this every year at Adobe. Every person in the entire government affairs department maps out their stakeholders, and we go back and update the maps regularly.
Now, when I say stakeholders, I mean internal ones. The people who you partner with on projects and activities. The ones whose support you’ll need to get anything through upper management.
We actually create a map and put them all on it. Label all of them, their departments, the reasons for the connections. Bring it all together into one visualized web of influence.
I take part as well. I include around 10-15 senior people in the company who I interact with on a regular basis.
Step 2: List Shared Problems
Once you’ve mapped your stakeholders, the next thing to do is identify the problems that you share with each stakeholder. These are issues that you both want to resolve.
What if you don’t know what shared problems exist? Sit down with your stakeholders and ask them. Get a one-on-one meeting and check in with them. Ask what issues they’re dealing with, what challenges they have, what goals they need to accomplish and the blockers to those goals.
What if you do know what shared problems exist? Sit down with your stakeholders anyway. We also do this annually. If you work quite closely with someone, you probably have a good idea what their problems are, but you might be wrong. Just like with the stakeholder map, make sure you do this at least annually so that you stay on top of it.
Why do all this? If you can identify problems that are shared across more than one department, you’ve accomplished two things.
First, you’ve found ways to frame your arguments. These are issues that your colleagues care about, and getting them on board with you requires that there be something in it for them.
Second, you’ve found strategic issues that affect the company, not just your specific niche within the company. The broader the problem and the more global the solution, the greater the likelihood of it getting approved at higher levels.
Step 3: Rank Problems by Impact
So you’ve got your stakeholder map, and you got your list of shared problems. Now you need to rank them by impact.
When I say impact, I mean of course the relative impact to the company as a whole. What problems, if solved, would have the greatest positive impact on the entire company?
Next you take the top problems from that list and make those your target. This is what you’ll build your business plan around.
Step 4: Get An Executive Sponsor
Now you need to figure out who will support your project at the highest levels. In most companies, you really need someone at a truly senior level to serve as the cheerleader-in-chief of your project.
In most cases, this will be the highest ranking person on your stakeholder map. Take a look at your map. If you don’t have anyone there who is high enough in the company, then figure out how to connect to someone who is. Then meet with them and make sure steps 2 and 3 still work.
Your executive sponsor needs to buy into your idea and really drive it up and across the organization. The more power they have, the more budget they control and the more likely your chances of success are.
Step 5: Craft Your Narrative. Collect Your Data.
We’re almost there. You’ve got shared problems that feed into company-wide initiatives. You’ve got stakeholders who can buy in and an executive sponsor who will take the project across the finish line.
In order to convince the group who will vote on which projects to fund, you need a compelling case.
Your case, just like any case you create for a Member of Congress or an Agency official, needs both a good story and numbers to back it up.
Some of you might be tempted not to read this in detail, but I’d like to pause here and point out that neglecting either of these two components is a common mistake that can kill your budget request. I see it happen all the time.
Your narrative is where you tie together all of the data points and demonstrate to senior leadership exactly how this project solves shared problems and leads to a result that the company as a whole benefits from.
Your data is the proof that this isn’t just something you want, but rather something that is objectively true.
I’ve seen executives call people out if either of these two things is missing. They’ll say things like, “I don’t believe you. Where is the proof?” Or they’ll get a skeptical look on their faces and say, “I don’t get the point of all this. What’s the story here? What are you trying to say?”
Our CEO is a great example. He’ll notice immediately if one of these is missing, and he’ll really drill into the presenter and just destroy the whole pitch. I’ve seen people not get past slide 2. Their project is dead on arrival after all of that work.
The reason executives are so hard on people is they are rightly suspicious of arguments that are missing either element. If you left out data, then what are you hiding? If you didn’t craft a compelling narrative, then do you really understand this company and how your project can help?
So you absolutely have to have both.
Sketch it out in an outline. Look hard at your own work. What’s the story? What data supports my assumptions and my conclusions?
This part should be relatively easy if you’ve done your homework in Steps 1-4. You should have a deep understanding of company strategy, the roadblocks to implementing that strategy that are shared across more than one department, and the steps you will take to help the company succeed.
However, just because it looks easy, you should still take the time to type it out. Show someone else and ask if it makes sense. Does it flow logically? Is it compelling?
Your work in government affairs prepares you well for this, but I still see people fail at this when they try to find data that will convince corporate executives to make a decision.
Here are some sources of data that you can frequently turn to and which will be great supports for your arguments.
Consulting firm reports
Your own surveys of government leaders or policy wonks
Your own conversations with Sales (how much revenue will this bring?)
Your own conversations with Legal (how much will we save by averting risk?)
Step 6: Write Your 2-Page Business Plan
Now you’re ready to actually write. I’m going to be very prescriptive on this point, based on years of seeing what succeeds and what fails.
Keep it to two pages. Why two? Nobody is going to read anything longer than that. Also, if you can’t distill it down to a succinct summary, then perhaps you don’t fully understand it yourself.
As you write it out, anticipate the kinds of questions that an executive would have and then answer them. The last thing you want is for them to have a question, not know where to find the answer, and just look blankly at your plan.
I strongly recommend using the following structure.
Part I - The Bottom-Line Request
In two sentences, just say what you’re asking for and what the result will be. I want $X, and I will do Y, and the result will be Z.
It’s critical not to bury the lede, otherwise the executives will stop reading and start scanning for it. They want to know what they’re getting into before they look at the details.
Part II - Problem Statement
You can be confident here because you’ve spoken with the right stakeholders and actually done the work of identifying a company-wide problem.
Actually say what the problem is. Be specific about the cost of this problem. It could be actual dollars. It could be dollars lost to inefficiencies. It could be a looming problem that will have real repercussions if it’s not avoided.
Also be aspirational. The problem statement could actually be an opportunity. Social justice issues are a great example here. Companies have explicitly said they want to invest in things like diversity, equity, and inclusion. If your project helps meet some of those big goals, then you’ve got a perfect problem to solve.
Part III - Business Justification
Here’s where you bring your data. Talk about return on investment. Talk about dollars and hours and risk and reward.
Use all of your creativity and critical thinking to bring information that demonstrates you know what you’re talking about.
Part IV - Resource Request
This goes into more detail on exactly what you need and what you’re going to do with it.
Cover all of your bases here. Will you use in-house resources or an outside firm? If outside, then who? How have you selected them? Why in-house or outside?
Be specific. It shows that you’ve really done your due diligence. This gives executives greater confidence to approve your project because they know exactly how the money will be spent and it demonstrates that you take it seriously enough to only come to them with a well thought-out plan of action.
Part V - Deliverables
List out, by quarter, what you will turn in along the way to completing the project. It doesn’t have to be a long list, but it needs to have interim steps. For example, by Q1, I will complete some analysis. By Q2, I will deliver 10 media hits and an analysis of the coverage.
These deliverables show the executives that they don’t have to wait and just trust that everything will happen at the end of the project. It keeps you honest, and they like having regular reports back up to them.
Part VI - Reports
Close with the metrics you will use to show success or failure. How will you report back to this team of executives on the value that they got after spending the money on your and your project?
I created these steps after years and years of seeing well intentioned government affairs professionals get shot down when they ask for more money.
The conclusion that most people in government affairs make is that the executive team just doesn’t value their work. That’s just plain wrong.
The reason your budget requests are getting turned down is you don’t know how to make those requests in a way that business leaders understand.
Follow the steps in this article, and I guarantee your next ‘ask’ will go much, much better.