Successful Supervisor Part 53 – Getting Management Buy-in

November 18, 2017

In this article I will discuss one of the most vexing problems facing professionals of all kinds, including supervisors. Supervisors are often faced with the dilemma of getting full buy-in for an initiative that they know will advance the organization.

A typical complaint might sound like this, “I know bringing in this training would pay huge dividends for my operation, but I cannot get their attention long enough to make my case. If I turn up the volume, then I am accused of getting emotional, which lowers my chance of getting what is obviously needed.”

Let’s explore the root causes of this problem and suggest some potential antidotes. Note: this problem is so pervasive that fully resolving it may not be possible.

Why isn’t Top Management Listening to Your Ideas?

There are likely numerous answers to your question. Let me suggest a few of the more common causes of managers failing to get behind initiatives that are proposed at lower levels.

1. Isolation and Preoccupation

Many top managers work in a kind of bubble where they interface with the managers who report directly to them but have a lot less contact with people lower in the organization.

Their days, and nights, are full of thought patterns relative to how they can keep the ship moving in the right direction, so they appear to be very preoccupied with details and hard to reach for different ideas.

When they are at work, every minute in every meeting is often spoken for. A new initiative might feel threatening to them as if it might cause some distraction from their primary agenda. Trying to get a new idea or initiative on the agenda, no matter how brilliantly conceived, will require some creative thinking.

One tip that can help is to always focus in on the benefits that will accrue from your idea before describing the steps that need to be accomplished. If your idea will reduce an organizational problem, be sure to stress this first to get the attention of the top brass.

2. Working Through Layers

Often the supervisor or person with a great idea has to work through a layer or two of other managers in order to get air time on the agenda at the top. These other layers have been put in place primarily to allow the senior leaders time to work on their agenda.

It is common for a manager to come back from the top level meeting and explain that even though she had gotten your idea on the agenda, it never surfaced at the meeting because there were more urgent topics to resolve.

The tip here is to find a way to get your idea exposed to the top leader yourself. If you count on your boss or her boss to take your case to the top, you have less chance of success.

Your agenda will get watered down significantly as it moves through the layers. Rather than allow another person to pitch your idea, explore creative ways to get before the decision makers yourself.

This technique can be tricky because your boss has to justify her role as well. You might suggest a route to the top with an approach like this: “I really want to present the idea to Mr. Big myself this time. Would you be willing to tee up the conversation and arrange a lunch meeting for the three of us?”

3. Chain of Command Issues

The well intended professional may not have enough recognition at the top of the organization to gain share of mind. The supervisor may have a wonderful idea, but the top leader will never know it because he assumes her direct boss is the one who should pass judgment on the idea.

The tip here is to get a chance to surface your idea at a meeting where both your direct boss and the top leader are there together. Ask for the support of your boss ahead of time, so when you surface the idea she can provide immediate support in front of the top layer.

That approach has three benefits: 1) the top layer hears your idea in the way you describe it, 2) the senior person knows you have done your homework, and 3) you have an opportunity to make your boss look good in front of the senior leaders.

4. Insufficient Credibility

The top leaders may not be adequately aware of your prowess in terms of seeing and executing innovative opportunities for the organization. If this is the case, you need to start small and generate several small successes.

It also helps to volunteer for leadership roles in furthering the causes already being pushed from the top. Be strategic because credibility is earned over time, but the equity can be destroyed by a single misstep.

5. Not Invented Here

NIH thinking permeates the mind of people at all levels. If you are three levels below me in the organization and you come up with a magic solution to all my problems, what force makes me want to displace the solutions that are coming out of my head to give your solution a try?

The top leaders may fear that the changes you advocate will lead to loss of control or some side effect that will cause extra effort or cost to unscramble. To fight this problem, you need to present the idea as simple, logical, and bullet proof (low risk).

It also will add to your credibility if you have thought through some potential problems and have solutions to offer if these might arise. When you present a balanced and thoroughly investigated idea, it lowers the risk.

Some Other Tips

I will suggest some ideas here, but recognize that individual differences will make them successful or not depending on the circumstances. Maybe the best advice is to build a reputation for excellence and innovation in the areas you control. A track record of excellence is your best calling card.

1. Don’t Appear to be Overly Anxious or Disgruntled

If you lose your cool out of frustration, then not only will you not get approval for your project, but you will damage all future proposals. Always remain respectful and helpful. Keep stressing the benefits and remind superiors that we are all on the same team.

In some circumstances, you can even ask for a “favor” to allow your idea to be executed. This approach shows that you really care about the organization and have the initiative to bring up solid solutions. One good technique to accomplish this is to suggest a “pilot program” that can demonstrate the benefits with a lower risk.

2. Always be a Team Player

Seek out allies and friends at all levels. Make sure you are doing more than your share of the work and be generous with your praise for others. If people genuinely like you they will go to bat for you in many ways.

Also, foster good relationships with the administrative helpers of people higher in the organization. These people have more power than is sometimes realized by people lower in the organization. For one thing, they control the time agenda of the people in power, so if they like you it means you can get more access.

In addition, the administrative assistant is privy to discussions that go on when you are not around. If the person likes you, he or she will tip you off if you are coming on too strong or in some other way hurting your own agenda.

3. If You Get Approval, Make Sure to Express Appreciation and Report Results

Work is really a series of initiatives, so you do yourself a favor by praising the big boss if you are granted the opportunity to show how your idea will help. Do this in writing (not texting or email). Make sure to report back the fine results of the implemented idea with expressions of further gratitude.

Basically, you want to develop a groove or pattern of successful implementation of ideas. This pattern will make future proposals have a higher chance of success and will often lead to eventual promotions for you.

Gaining and maintaining a reputation that causes senior leaders to be eager to hear your ideas is a daunting task, but it is possible to accomplish through the application of excellent political skills.

Selling your ideas is an ultimate test of your professional capability. Study the ideas above and add more to your repertoire through your own experiences.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Reinforcing Candor: The Key to Building Trust

October 17, 2015

Whenever I hired a new manager in my organization, the very first conversation I had with that individual was about “reinforcing candor.”

Over a period of 30 years I’ve discovered that reinforcing candor is the single most powerful way to create trust within an organization.

For leaders, it is imperative for them to understand what this means and be able to practice it. The idea is, when an employee comes forward with a concern about something that the leader has said or done, rather than punishing the employee, the leader makes the person glad to have brought up the issue.

This behavior is not easy to do, because the leader does not see a problem with what was being done. In essence, everyone in the organization, including the leader, wears a button saying, “I AM RIGHT.”

If an employee challenges an action, then it’s only human for a leader to become defensive and punish the person in some way for bringing it up.

It takes superhuman effort on the part of leaders to consistently reinforce candor, but the impact on the organization is so great that those leaders who can understand the wisdom of this technique have a huge advantage in terms of building trust.

Without reinforcing candor, all of the other actions to build trust are somewhat blunted. They work a little bit but they are not very powerful.

Once the leader understands how to reinforce candor, a whole new world opens up, and all of the other actions to build trust work like magic.

Exercise for You: In your organization, work to reinforce candor the next time someone tells you something that you did not want to hear, but has some truth to it.

You will find it difficult at first, but the more you practice this technique, the easier it becomes, and soon you can change your entire pattern of behavior when you’re challenged.

The ability to reinforce candor is the most powerful method of creating trust, because it allows a safe environment where employees know they will not be punished when they bring up scary stuff. I call this skill the key for building trust.

What if you are not the top leader but wish to be a positive influence on that person? If you can get the top leader in an organization to reinforce candor more, trust will spread rapidly throughout the entire population.

The challenge is how to get the leader to develop the skill and patience to reinforce candor when he or she may not see the need to do so.

Here are six ideas that can help encourage a leader to practice reinforcing candor. Try to use these in the spirit of helpfulness rather than manipulation. The idea is to help shape behavior over time, so if any of these ideas are creating tension, back off and go slower.

1. Start by planting a seed in the leader’s mind that there is a potential for a much better culture if higher trust can be generated. Point out that trust grows when people are made to feel glad when they bring up their concerns.

2. All leaders want higher trust, so the opportunity to make things better by some changes in their behavior should be appealing.

3. Start small. The goal is for the leader to see the benefits of reinforcing candor and try to be less defensive when people push back on actions or statements.

4. Model the principle of reinforcing candor yourself when working with the leader.

5. Talk openly about how you are using the skill and ask how the leader is responding to it.

6. Catch the leader applying these techniques and praise the effort. Also make note of the positive response on the part of the person who was reinforced for being candid.

No leader will ever get to 100% perfection at reinforcing candor, but if the percentage can go from 5% (which is about what most leaders typically achieve) to something like 70% of the time, the culture will make a seismic shift toward higher trust in short order.

You can help shape the behavior of your leader toward the benefits of reinforcing candor. It may take a while for the concept to gain traction, but once the leader experiences the forward progress, he or she will be anxious to do more of it.

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to http://www.avanoo.com/first3/517


Leaders: Hold Yourself Accountable

April 29, 2012

Several managers I know are fond of saying “we have to hold our people accountable.” I think the process of making sure people need to step up to responsibility is a good one, but it really needs to start at the top. Unfortunately, I see many top leaders failing to hold themselves accountable first.

Let’s envision a plant manager who has a problem of extremely low morale in the factory. The supervisors are telling the manager that people are upset because of no raise in 3 years and the threats of layoffs. They are tired of being abused and kept in the dark. The productivity is at an all time low, and the only way to take cost out is to further reduce the workforce. If you were that manager, how would you go about engineering a rapid turnaround in the performance of your plant?

One interesting strategy is push your chair back from the desk, stand up, walk down the hall, go in the bathroom, look in the mirror, and ask yourself some tough questions like the following:

• Morale is terrible in this plant, and as the manager in charge, how have you been contributing to this problem?
• What is preventing you from fully holding yourself accountable for this awful situation?
• In what ways have you been trying to lay the blame on the supervisors, employees, bad economy, suppliers, business downturn, competition, etc., and how can you deal with the current situations and business environment in a more empowering and effective way for all concerned?
• What fundamental changes in the structure, behaviors, values, and vision are you going to make to completely change the environment?
• What behaviors do you need to change, starting right now, to build a culture of higher trust?
• In what ways can you change the attitudes of the workers by changing your own attitudes and behaviors?
• Since bonuses, or picnics, or parties, or hat days are not going to have much impact on long term motivation, how can you find out what really will inspire people and then implement the proper changes to the environment?
• How can you be a better mentor for your supervisors as well as train them to be better mentors to their own staff?
• How are you going to find a way to quadruple the time you have available to communicate with people?
• Do you need assistance to solve these issues? If so, what kind of help could you use and where can you find it?
• How can you know if or when it is time to pursue other opportunities and let someone with a different skill set handle the turnaround?

Yes, that is tough medicine, and yet I believe if the cold realities in these questions were internalized by some top leaders, conditions might start to change. It is only through the behaviors and attitudes of the top leaders that real changes can be made in an organization. Once top leaders step up to their own accountability, then the rest of the organization will quickly become enrolled in a new and positive vision for the enterprise.


Neon Hypocrisy

March 19, 2011

Many organizations (perhaps most of them) have a value that states, “People are our most important asset.” It stands to reason why this should be the case. People are usually the biggest expense item in the budget of an organization. They hold the intellectual capital of the organization. They do the research on future streams of products. They produce the current products or services. They sell the output of the organization. They work with the suppliers and vendors who make production possible. They administer the business and keep things working financially. So, any organization would be insane to not recognize that people really are their most important asset.

You can see the phrase on the values plaque in the lobby of most companies. In fact, it is often the number one or number two value listed because it comes out first as the top brass sit down to dream up things like values statements. The problem is that the dreaming phase does not match the execution phase. It is in the daily actions of managers and leaders at all levels that the hypocrisy of the statement shines like a neon sign to everyone who works in the company. Most managers simply do not act as if they believe people are the most important asset. Most employees walk past the values plaque in the lobby and don’t pay any attention to it. After all, if management is not behaving consistently with the value, why should employees believe the value is operational?

Meanwhile, in the conference rooms, computer notes, offices, private discussions, decision meetings, town hall meetings, and every possible form of interaction, managers are dealing with the business of business and ignoring the neon value sitting out in the lobby.

As younger generation workers begin to filter in from high school and colleges, a greater sense of personal self esteem is arriving with them, and organizations will need to show more respect for people than in the past. Younger generations are not willing to endure corporate jargon that does not match observable behavior, and it is not just a corporate phenomenon either. We can clearly see a trend of less tolerance for duplicity in the broader society as we witness social unrest all over the world from the “Tea-Party” to the riots in Egypt. People seek an environment that fulfills their sense of purpose. They are less tolerant of corruption from the Town Hall to the Union Hall. If leaders are going to spout out platitudes about people being the most important organizational asset, they need to start acting that way!

Just imagine what you would see if an organization really did believe in the neon value. What would it look like? Here are some ideas, and you can fill in other examples for yourself:

1. Managers would take the time to interface with most employees on most days. They would not be cloistered in conference rooms, deciding whether or not to tell people about the impending layoff or how to posture the latest benefits cut.

2. Communication would be intended to help engage people, not be a feeble attempt to spin the latest information in an effort to avoid a revolt.

3. People would have a sense that upper management really wants them to get as much development as possible to be able to rise to their potential, rather than having managers check off the boxes to record that each employee had all the mandatory hazard training for the year.

4. Recognition for good work would be spontaneous and light hearted instead of an obligation to be performed begrudgingly and with insincerity.

5. Flexibility would be evident when employees have personal issues or family matters to deal with instead of maintaining strict discipline so managers will not be accused of playing favorites.

6. Trust would be in abundant evidence in all matters rather than a CYA mentality to document all forms of behavior not according to strict guidelines.

7. CEOs would not tolerate a multiple of 300X between their salary and that of an average production worker.

8. Ethical decisions would be made because it is just good business rather than to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

9. Corporate jets would be sold, so top leaders would deal with the same travel hassles as their “most important asset.”

10. Management washrooms would be gutted and made into cultural centers where all employees could learn to appreciate each other more.

11. Organizations would welcome social networking and transparency rather than try to seek ways to restrict these trends out of fear of being exposed.

12. Managers would spend less energy trying to explain financial performance to Wall Street and more energy trying to improve the culture of their organization.

13. Leaders at all levels would learn the value of praising people who express a concern about inconsistencies. Thus, they would be building higher trust on a daily basis by reinforcing candor.

I believe the neon value is a wonderful ideal. It does express the right attitude toward the value of people. We need to encourage all leaders to make their actions and policies be consistent with the words. Some organizations have been able to accomplish that to a large degree. These groups have reached the status of the best companies to work for in America. Leaders who habitually pay lip service to the neon value will feel more and more like Hosni Mubarak sitting in his palace watching the mob outside throwing stones at the windows.


Leaders Teaching Leadership

January 9, 2011

I have seen many corporate training applications where top leaders believe stronger leadership is needed throughout the organization’s ranks. They ask the Training Department to develop a leadership development program. Training mangers are not allowed to “staff up” to do the actual training, so they look outside for the faculty to teach various leadership courses. This could be a mistake, because it overlooks the cadre of potential teachers already on the payroll.

For the senior leaders in an organization, the level of involvement in actually helping to train more junior leaders runs the gamut from zero, as described above, to actually doing all of the teaching themselves. Classroom time spent by a senior leader is a sliding scale; what works well in one instance would be a problem in another case. A good benchmark is if the senior leaders do 20% to 40% of the teaching. It is up to the individual leader, along with the development staff or outside consultant, to determine the optimum level of involvement.

I believe higher involvement by senior leaders often leads to better outcomes assuming the top leaders have the credibility and skill to do a good job of teaching lower level leaders. If there are problems at the senior level, then training dollars would be better spent there to make top leaders capable of being credible teachers as opposed to trying to “fix” the lower levels of management with outside canned leadership training.

If you are a leader, you need to make a conscious decision about how much time and effort you will put into the job of training underlings yourself. If you are a training director or consultant, you will need to decide how much you should encourage the senior leader to be involved. There are numerous personal, organizational, and practical factors that go into these decisions.

For example, if the senior leader is cloistered in financial meetings all the time, and the human side of the work is delegated to operations people, having this person do instruction would likely be a poor choice. If the organization is in the middle of a survival crisis or a merger, the top leader may be unable to spare any time for development of underlings. Perhaps the senior leader is just a lousy leader, and it would be foolhardy to have this person teach others how to screw up. Conversely, the senior leader may be outstanding and consider training the next generation of leaders to be his or her highest calling.

Let’s assume the top leadership has built high trust and has the capability to teach leadership in an engaging manner. Under those conditions, there are several advantages to having leadership classes taught by senior leaders:

1. Shows right priority. If the top brass preach that nothing is more important than having great leaders at every level, then they ought to show that with action and their time rather than give lip service to executive development.

2. People pay more attention. If your boss is in front of the classroom, not only does it send a very strong signal about the importance of the training, people listen better because the boss is putting sweat equity into the equation. It is called leading by example.

3. The best way to learn something well is to teach it. If leaders take the time to organize their thoughts about key leadership concepts, they will be more likely to practice the habits themselves.

4. The content is more applicable. The case examples and materials used to teach the lessons are directly applicable to the particular situation managers are facing every day on the job. They are not hypothetical examples brought in by an outside trainer who does not even understand the local jargon.

5. Training your own leaders is uplifting. Taking a personal interest in the development of up-and-coming leaders helps the top brass assess capabilities better and forms a kind of mentoring spirit that is healthy. The caveat here is to avoid being overbearing or intrusive. Young leaders need to experiment with different ideas in safety, so the mentor needs to establish ground rules that ensure a safe learning environment.

6. Control your own destiny. When leaders develop the course content, it will be laser-focused on the local need. If an outside trainer is teaching leadership, it will be less potent and potentially less effective.

7. Those actually in the trench are better at teaching trench warfare. Great leaders have the instincts and knowledge of how to apply concepts in a pragmatic way on the job. Trainers who have not sat in the leader’s chair do not have the in-depth understanding of the realities. They describe the textbook answers that often fall flat in the real world.

These seven reasons are why it is helpful to have leaders be the teachers of leadership. I acquired this tendency myself as I learned that teaching leadership and trust was one of the most important parts of my job as a Division Manager of a large corporation. I gave the activity roughly 30% of my calendar time, and I am convinced it was the best use of my time.

I grant that many leaders would not have the patience or skills required to be good at teaching leadership. Frankly, many leaders do not have the ability to practice what they preach, so their teachings might ring hollow to stronger underlings. This is where the Development staff needs to focus energy. The top leaders need coaching on how to participate in the hands-on work of teaching leadership in their organization. There is plenty of work for consultants to drive this conversion, but once leaders get the idea and have the skills, it is best for them to take their place in front of the classroom.

Several organizations have taken up the banner of having leaders teach leadership. Becton Dickinson is one group that practices this well. There is a good book on this concept by Ed Betof, if you are interested. The title is Leaders as Teachers. It describes the journey at Becton Dickinson and the incredibly positive impact the practice has had on the organization. However, you do not need to read a book on how to practice having leaders as teachers, just advocate it and start doing it. If that seems unlikely in your situation, it may mean that the top leaders in your organization need some remedial leadership training themselves. Spend your training dollars there first.


Merger Miseries 6 – Bean Counters and Bubbleheads

October 18, 2010

This is the sixth in a series of articles on the trials and tribulations of mergers and acquisitions. This episode concerns who takes the leading roles in the process and how that choice impacts the entire process. It is obvious that the people leading a business deal will color or slant the discussions toward their personal area of expertise. Since mergers and acquisitions involve serious reconfiguration of the financial structure of the organization, the financial side of the house normally takes the lead role. Any kind of restructuring activity is going to have implications that directly impact all financial reports, which alter how the entity is viewed by the investment community.

Letting the financial aspects of a restructuring be paramount is only natural, but it has the effect of subrogating the impact of the action on people from the very start. In most cases, people are visualized as falling in line with the plan once the financial details have been struck. This attitude allows the bean counters to conjure up options that have maximum value in terms of the balance sheet and income statements, but their points of view are in a vacuum in terms of how people will respond.

Top managers act as if they are in a bubble of secret and titillating information about the possibilities of the proposed action. Early conversations are kept strictly inside the secret bubble. The human impact and ideas from the impacted people are not front and center at this point. The bubbleheads do fully intend to cover all personnel (some call it HR) issues later and “roll out” a communication plan to explain the process and benefits. The problem is that later is often far too late to be perceived as anything but a “lay on” by the people in the organization.

The well known Pareto Principle states that for any set of items, 20% of the items contain 80% of the value. I think this principle holds in early merger talks because the human aspects of the proposed action get less than 20% of the attention early on, but they really contain 80% of the value to the organization long term. Unfortunately by giving short shrift to the human aspects of a merger, a great opportunity to build stake and understanding is squandered.

There is a simple antidote to this problem. It is to create a nucleus of individuals with equal power to impact the decisions up front. This group would be represented by people centered individuals (HR or Operations Management), Financial Managers, Senior Officials, and Legal Counsel. This group would work on all aspects of a proposed action in a balanced approach that considers how and when to include the people in the process as a prime consideration. This policy would set up talks on future organizational changes for success. From first inkling of a merger, don’t let the bean counters and bubbleheads be the only parties at the table.


Leaders and Managers

March 16, 2010

There is a lot of information on the contrast between leaders and managers. Typically we see a side by side comparison with items such as:

“Managers do things right” while

“Leaders do the right things.”

I like to take a different slant on describing the differences because I believe a pure manager comes to work with an entirely different mindset from a pure leader. Of course, there really is no such thing as a pure manager or leader, it is always some kind of a combination of the two concepts. Here is how I describe the differences.

The Manager

The manager wants everything to go smoothly. He or she wants every process to run the way it should and get the maximum productivity. There should be no waste. The manager wants everyone to follow all the rules and be there every day motivated to do good work. In essence, the manager wants to stabilize things and clone everything to be exactly right. The manager is all about doing things right, and is most closely associated with the mission of the organization (what they are trying to accomplish). The manager works with the process, the equipment, the schedule, and the people in terms of what they should be doing. Managers are now oriented.

The Leader

The leader is often a destabilizing force. He or she is most interested in where the organization is going rather than just optimizing today’s processes. That may mean making people unhappy for some time in order for the greater good. If people are too complacent and do not see the dangers, the leader is there to create a burning platform. Leaders are sometimes very unpopular. The idea is to do the right things, which may mean some pretty difficult decisions. The leader is all about the vision of the organization (where they are trying to go). The leader works with the balance sheet, the strategic plan, the product line, and the people in terms of what they can become. Leaders are future oriented.

The Leader/Manager

This person is able to combine the best of both worlds and act in both roles. All of us act as leaders and managers at times, but each of us favors one mode or the other. A good balance between the two extremes is the best place to be. In general, the world has far more competent managers than competent leaders, so if you have leadership tendencies, that is a good thing to have.

Really great leaders do not mind being average managers. They recognize their weakness and surround themselves with outstanding managers to handle the details.