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


You Are Never Totally Objective

December 13, 2014

I am RightI originally intended to have the title for this article read “How Do You Know When You Are Biased.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it is impossible to be totally unbiased on an issue. The most we can do is be conscious of our biases and factor that knowledge into our deliberations. We can also seek to replace hubris with humility.

To be totally objective, it would put us in the category of a machine or computer. Unless you are Mr. Spock, you have emotions and cannot separate your logical reasoning from your emotions entirely.

You also carry a set of beliefs that are made up of the sum of all the experiences you have had to date. You cannot detach yourself from your unique mindset any more than the earth can detach itself from the solar system.

With herculean effort you may be able to change your orbit a perceptible amount, but you will always be subject to the laws of physics in your corner of the universe. Notwithstanding another “big bang,” you are going to orbit around the sun forever.

One place to observe bias is when managers try to measure accurately the performance of people who work for them. Imagine a manager trying to write an objective performance appraisal.

Because the manager is a human being, he or she will observe performance through the lens of how he or she feels about the employee. It would be impossible to factor out personal biases, but by recognizing that there is the certainty of being biased, the manager can take that into account.

One tool is to use a correlation process where several managers review the appraisals each one has written.

If you have an environment of trust, groups of managers can discuss the objective observations about an individual without getting defensive. In this open discussion one particular manager’s biases can become more visible. This practice reduces the problem of favoritism and enhances the level of trust in an organization.

Another area where we struggle to be objective is when thinking about political issues. We are bombarded by information that is presented with strong biases already marinated in.

Most of us prefer to listen to the “news” that is slanted in the direction we habitually lean. That gives us a kind of affirmation that our biases are valid.

Just for fun I often listen to the news on a network known for having the opposite bias to my own. It is a kind of jarring exercise as I quickly see the how their biases are strikingly “wrong” only to realize that it could be mine that are so far off base.

One thing is for sure, when interpreting political forces, there is no such thing as objectivity.

Your opinion is a very personal thing, and the good news is that you can never get your opinion wrong. The bad news is that your opinion will never be totally objective, so factor that conundrum into your decisions and relationships with other people.

One tool to do this is to take off the “I AM RIGHT” button you wear every day and replace it with a button that says, “I have an opinion on that – what’s yours?”


Political Wisdom

August 24, 2014

RakeThere is an old saying “Too soon old – too late smart.” During my long career in a large organization, I somehow managed to do some pretty bonehead things politically.

I will never be someone who is politically brilliant because I am far too outspoken. But I have learned some things and want to pass on an idea to others.

In some training sessions, we learn about how people have their own unique learning style. Some of us learn only by doing, some by hearing , some by visualizing, etc. I remember one class where we all had to reveal our most useful learning style.

When it got to my turn, I said, “My style of learning is the rake.” Everyone in the class looked a little puzzled, so I explained. If I step on a rake and the handle comes up and thwapps me in the face, I have learned something that I will never forget.

That is a pretty accurate description of how I learned my horse sense on political mistakes to avoid. It is not to say I have found all the potential rakes out there. I still get konked from time to time, but hopefully each new learning is from a rake I have not seen before.

I will share my own list below only as an example. It is more helpful if you make up your own list based on your personality and situation or the mistakes you have already made.

Start with just one or two key things and build your list over time. It is a simple matter of keeping a computer file and remembering to add to it every time a rake handle hits you in the face.

Whipple’s 14 Rules for Political Survival (soon to be 15)

1. Know who butters your bread – and act that way
2. Act consistent with your values and spiritual rightness
3. Make 20 positive remarks for every negative one
4. Don’t grandstand – practice humility – no cheap shots
5. Understand the intentions and motivation of others
6. Follow up on everything – be alert & reliable
7. Do the dirty work cheerfully – not too good for it
8. Agree to disagree – walk away with respect
9. Don’t beat dead horses – repetition is a rat hole
10. Be aggressive, but not a pest – it’s a fine line
11. Constantly read people’s intentions & desires
12. Administrative people have real power – cultivate it
13. Keep an active social life with work associates
14. Always, Always be considerate and gracious

I often wonder how long my list will be when I take my last breath in the nursing home. We tend to learn political lessons in all areas of our life, not just at work.


To Speak or Not To Speak

August 4, 2013

Brunette Oriental ShirtIs it always a good idea to let people know where you stand on issues? In my leadership classes, this question comes up when we discuss politics and how to protect one’s reputation. From the time I was young, my parents stressed that we should be open about our feelings and ideas. I learned at an early age to share thoughts early and often. Later on, I learned there is a potential trap in the philosophy.

I call it the “stand up and be counted” syndrome. The idea is that it is a good thing to be forthright with your opinions, but there are times in life where it is wiser to hold your opinions to yourself. Believe it or not, there are situations where other people simply do not want to hear your opinion, especially if you tend toward being vocal. In a public meeting, you need to watch the body language of other people to gauge when to be vocal and when to listen quietly. I have been trying to develop that skill in myself recently. I wish I would have paid more attention to the concept earlier in my career.

I can recall making a contrary point to what was being proposed and sharing my rationale in a public forum. The leader of the meeting made note of my objection and started to move on, but I could not resist the temptation to amplify my concern. That was a mistake. My point had been made, and by trying to get in the last word, I was losing rather than gaining ground.

A cliché that fits this issue is “keeping your cards close to your chest.” The idea here is that it is often a better strategy to withhold your opinion until you have assessed the audience and political environment into which you might be injecting it.

Exactly how you interject your input is as important as when you do it. For example, I once was asked if it would be a good idea to take over the sale of a product line from another company in exchange for access to some technology. The product was ten-inch floppy discs, which at the time were declining in sales volume rapidly after the introduction of the five-inch floppy disc. I answered the question easily and abruptly with “I think it stinks” (which was actually the right call). I failed to take into account the full political nature of the line-up of forces pro and con on the decision, so I saw some raised eyebrows around the table. In the end, we did not go for the deal, so there was no permanent damage, but my initial response could have been more circumspect and mature.

For example, rather than a flat rejection, I might have discussed some test patterns around the life cycle of the product. I could have asked Socratic Questions about the future sales stream we would likely experience. Asking questions is frequently safer than making strong negative statements. It lets the other parties discover the precaution for themselves rather than have you slap them in the face with it. If they discover it, then you will not likely be irritating the other people.

Recently I had the reverse of that situation come up. I was in a BOD meeting, and there was a troubling discussion going on. My emotions were at a peak level with lots of venom inside me. Before the end of the meeting, the Chairman of the Board noticed I was being less vocal than usual and asked me if I wanted to comment on the discussion. I said that I did not want to say anything. I just needed a couple days to get my emotions in check before making some public comment that might be misinterpreted. Unfortunately, my silence (which is rare for me) was interpreted as a negative signal. Sometimes you just cannot win.

In between silence and spilling your guts is the right place to be, and knowing when and how to speak is situational. It requires maturity, a keen sense of your audience and of the politics of communicating with them, a long term view of the implications, a tendency toward transparency, a sense of self protection, and a lot of maturity. The idea is to be conscious about the potential impact of your opinion before expressing your ideas verbally. This skill is one of the basic proficiencies in Emotional Intelligence, and it is important for each of us to become skilled at metering our opinions wisely.

The point of this article is to highlight the need to be sensitive to when to speak up and when to shut up. Lean in the direction of being forthright with your feelings, but watch the body language of others closely. That habit will allow you know when it is wiser to back off. Once you decide to speak up, do so with skill and sensitivity. If you have an objection, handle it like a razor sharp foil rather than a broadsword. Remember that just because a point is important to you does not make it important or even interesting to other people.


Playing Politics

November 6, 2011

Do you play politics? Is that a good thing to do? Is it morally right? Is it smart? How we deal with political situations has a huge impact on the quality of our lives.

We are surrounded by politics at all times, and we can all identify with the negative aspects of political activities. Webster defines politics in an organizational setting as : “scheming and maneuvering within a group,” immediately giving the word a negative connotation. If we are practicing politics, something bad is happening. We have encountered Machiavellian individuals who would take credit for the work of others or somehow undermine their efforts in order to enhance themselves. You can undoubtedly visualize a highly political individual in your mind as you read this article. What gives rise to political thought?

All of us have a set of wants, needs, and desires. For example, most of us would like to get our hands on more money, thinking it would allow fewer problems in our lives. Most of us wish the world would slow down so we could relax once in a while and enjoy the ride. None of us like to feel we have been taken advantage of in any kind of interchange, whether it be a co-worker goofing off while we toil away, or our boss forgetting the raise we were promised. In short, most of us want more of the “good stuff” in life, and we want to be assured we are not disadvantaged by someone else hogging more than their share.

We all have a vested interest in getting our share in life: what we have worked for and are entitled to receive. There is a constant agenda going on in everyone’s head relative to ensuring this equity; it makes no difference if a person is on death row or the CEO of a multinational organization. It is impossible for the needs of all people to be optimized at once, so this creates tension between individuals and groups. How we deal with this tension is called politics. We all engage in it most of the time. There is nothing wrong with doing this. It is human nature. We live in a sea of politics.

I read a great definition of political dynamics by Tom Rieger in “The Conference Board Review.” Tom wrote, “If your self-interests are in conflict with those of the greater good, it is simply human nature to adjust your view of the greater good to match the context of what is best for you.”

The ethical dilemmas about politics surface when people get greedy. They want more than their fair share of the “good stuff” and work to figure out ways to enhance their portion at the expense of others. We need to be alert for these people and protect our own interests at all times. Sometimes they are easy to spot, like the one-eyed pirate trying to cut off your head with a broad sword. Other times, they are so crafty their damage seems almost painless as if you are being sliced up by a razor-sharp foil.

Conducting yourself in an ethical manner, yet still being politically astute, can do wonders for your sanity and your pocketbook. Let’s look at 14 rules for political survival:

1. Know who butters your bread and act that way. Some people seem to forget their boss’ power to influence the quality of their life. This does not mean you need to be a “yes man” or a “suck up.” Just don’t go around intentionally undermining the boss, even if you think she is wrong.

2. Act in ways consistent with your values and sense of spiritual rightness. You know what is right. Often people rationalize and do wrong things in order to get ahead. These actions tend to backfire by reducing trust.

3. Make 20 positive remarks for every negative one. It is amazing how many people have that ratio exactly backward. They gripe and complain all day long. Then they wonder why nobody likes to be near them. Test this out on yourself. Make a mental note (maybe keep a 3X5″ card and make hash marks) of each positive and negative statement that comes out of your mouth. You may be surprised. If you don’t like your ratio, change it.

4. Do not grandstand. Practice humility and avoid taking cheap shots. Putting people down often feels satisfying at the moment (like they got what was coming to them), but in the long run, saying hurtful things will bring pain back to you in the future.

5. Try to understand the intentions and motivations of others. It isn’t enough to observe their behaviors. You need to dig deeper to reach the true meaning in their actions. Only then can you understand what is happening.

6. Follow up on everything. Try to achieve a reputation for being 100% reliable at doing what you promise. Show initiative and be alert for opportunities to demonstrate your reliability.

7. Do the dirty work cheerfully. Every job has unpleasant or boring aspects. Do these quickly and efficiently without complaint. You are not too good for the menial jobs.

8. Agree to disagree. Arguments at work can persist for months while people dig in further to buttress their position and undermine the other side. Life is too short for this pettiness. After three legitimate attempts to convince one another , it is best to say, “It looks like we are not going to agree on this matter. Rather than arguing about it, let’s agree to disagree. We still respect each other and can work well together. We just have this one area where we see things differently.” It is amazing how much time and acrimony can be eliminated with these few words.

9. Don’t beat dead horses. Forget the discussions that go on and on. Make your point once. If you think it was misunderstood, make it again. After that, move on. Repetition is a rat hole. Sometimes you can observe a group in heated discussion for a full hour. It sounds like an argument, but they are really in violent agreement.

10. Be aggressive, but don’t be a pest. There is a fine line between high initiative and being intrusive. Learn to read the body language all around you and back off before you go too far.

11. Administrative people and other support people have real power. They hold the keys for access to power people. They understand the sidebar conversations about you and the unpublished agendas that define the real ball game. They will be supportive if they like you.

12. Keep an active social life with work associates. This is not mandatory, but the better the relationship outside work, the more information will naturally flow in the conversation. Information is power. The basis for political power is that people do things for people they like.

13. Always be considerate and gracious. Try to avoid snapping at people. It is not always helpful to wear your emotions on your sleeve. The best rule here is the “golden” rule. Put yourself in the other person’s place and ask how you would like to be treated.

14. Try to foster peers as political allies. Never make an enemy if you can avoid it – and you almost always can avoid it.

That is a pretty long list of “dos” and “don’ts,” but most of them are common sense. The point is that your reputation (which is your most precious asset) is on the line in every interaction. Make sure you do everything possible to enhance it. I suggest you print out these tips and review them frequently. Following them can mean be the difference between floundering and thriving.