Issue selling to different managerial personalities – How MBA cases could benefit from incorporating behavioral factors to prepare students for company politics

Solving an MBA business case requires creating a balanced analysis of the situation and developing suitable strategic recommendations. However, in real life, analysts present their data and conclusions to managers with individual preferences. Having students consider these preferences might make them more successful.

Strategy development: top-down and bottom-up

Strategy can be developed top-down and bottom-up. For instance, a new CEO can set out a vision that implies strategic change (top-down). However, the vision could have also been strongly inspired by employees that achieved to bring their preferred topics to the management’s attention (bottom-up). The latter often involves a phenomenon known as issue selling: the process by which individuals within an organization bring ideas or concerns, solutions, and opportunities together in ways that focus others’ attention and invite action.[1]

Issue selling at different levels within a company

Issue selling can take place at many levels within a company. Employees can try to build compelling cases to change the routines and processes within their team. Presenting these cases to their respective leader can support getting the so-called managerial buy-in and following a mandate for change. Even more so, at higher levels of a company, issue selling plays a crucial role. To convince top management of the importance of strategic considerations needs to be backed up by solid arguments. However, while there are widely shared interpretations of arguments, managers also hold idiosyncratic preferences for specific information.

Different strategic preferences of different managerial personalities

Since the development of the upper echelons theory by Hambrick and Mason, strategic scholars have investigated which role executive characteristics play in processing information and influencing the firm’s strategic actions.[2] Researchers have paid attention to demographic characteristics like age and tenure, but also to more psychologically sound constructs like narcissism, overconfidence, and temporal and regulatory focus.

The example of CEO regulatory focus

Regulatory focus theory describes that decision-making can either occur through a promotion focus (a sensitivity to gains) or through a prevention focus (a sensitivity to losses). Managerial scholars have found that the regulatory foci of CEOs influence their preferences for strategic actions.[3] Knowing whether a CEO is more likely to consider the opportunities or risks of choices that are presented to him or her can help analysts to structure their arguments to make their case more compelling.

How to implement managerial personalities in MBA business cases?

Oftentimes, MBA students implicitly incorporate their audience’s personality in their case solutions by thinking about the professor’s preferences. However, students first need to learn to separate between a solution supported by the case’s data and the audience’s preferences. Hence, the task is not to present the assumed best-liked solution but to present the solution they consider the best in a way that the audience likes. Therefore, adding a hypothetical manager’s personality to an MBA case as the target audience sharpens the students’ view of the need for issue selling and will help them empathically draw on managers’ characteristics when presenting their arguments.


[2] Hambrick, D. C., & Mason, P. A. (1984). Upper echelons: The organization as a reflection of its top managers. Academy of management review9(2), 193-206.

[3] Gamache, D. L., McNamara, G., Mannor, M. J., & Johnson, R. E. (2015). Motivated to acquire? The impact of CEO regulatory focus on firm acquisitions. Academy of Management Journal58(4), 1261-1282.

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