Here is an executive coaching question from a reader…
Q: This question is in regards to ‘Management by Crisis’, or what some of us refer to as chronic ‘Fire Fighting’. I strongly agree with the comments made in the recent Q&A on How to Deal with a Crisis. My question is: When an organization is actually being managed this way (it is actually a paradigm), what kinds of things do you suggest in influencing upper level management to move to practices that prevent fires rather than rewarding the ‘heroes’ for putting fires out (constantly!!!)?
A: That is a very good question. Getting your boss, or upper management, to listen to your ideas for change or improvement can be a difficult challenge.
An executive coach would encourage you to get good at the “art of influencing upward.”
This is particularly important for executives who have a strong technical or academic background. While they may have more technical knowledge & expertise than their immediate bosses or even the CEO, it is still the boss who gets to decide whether to go ahead with an idea or not.
If you want your boss to act on your ideas & suggestions, you need to sell them. This is what Marshall Goldsmith calls the art of influencing up.
Some of his suggestions include:
* Think like a salesperson, not a technician – You need to take responsibility for actually selling your ideas to upper management rather than just blaming them if they don’t follow through.
In a perfect world, management would instantly recognize the potential of your ideas and act on them, but in practice, you need to convince management that the benefits outweigh the potential cost and risks.
* Focus on the needs of the customer – In this case, upper management and your boss are your customers.
Good salespeople know that they are not really selling a product or service, they are selling a feeling that the customer wants to experience.
What feelings does you boss want to experience? How can you express your proposition in a way that ties in to those feelings?
* Focus on the big picture – You have to be willing to connect the dots and show how your idea can lead to bigger profits, less cost, or enhanced productivity for the company.
* Pick your battles – Technical people tend to be nitpicky about details, especially when it comes to the implementation of their own ideas.
You have to avoid fighting battles on small trivial preferences that could derail your entire project. Focus on what matters even if you have to make some compromises on the details.
* Be realistic and open about costs and potential risks – Think things through and have a plan.
If you can’t answer questions and objections intelligently, you will have a hard time selling your ideas.
* Remember you are selling to people – Never say, “I’m amazed someone at this level in the organization can’t see the obvious need for this…”
You might be saying something that is theoretically true, but also very foolish if you want your ideas accepted.
* Focus on how to make things better, not what is not working – Instead of just pointing out what is broken or not working, create solutions that will make a difference.
Regarding your specific question about the kinds of things you can do to start selling upper management on the need to change from ‘fire-fighting’ mode to a more proactive approach, the first step is to help them become aware of the problem.
John Gardner said, “Most ailing organizations have developed a functional blindness to their own defects. They are not suffering because they cannot resolve their own problems, but because they cannot see their problems.”
However, helping upper management “feel the pain” of the problem is only half of the influencing up process; you also need to provide a practical solution to take that pain away.
Your solution could be part of a development plan, report, or a “white paper” describing practical steps your company can take. Remember that the job of this report is to sell, so you need to connect the dots and tie it to increased profits, lower costs, increased productivity, lower turnover, etc.
What are some of the ways you’ve used this idea of “influencing upward” in your organization?