Listening For What Bosses ‘Listen For’

Image Source: PixabayI was recently reminded of a helpful leadership tool I sometimes recommend – and a number of my my clients continue to use. (If memory serves, I think I got the idea from Tracy Goss’ “The Last Word on Power.”)

The big idea is this: Listen for ‘what bosses listen for’ – and then frame your requests, to them, in specifically those terms.

For examples, does which does your boss listen more for:

  • Problems to solve or opportunities to leverage?
  • Revenue increases or cost savings?
  • Ways to provide increased visibility for their direct reports or ways to increase their own profile?
  • Who to blame or how avoid blame? (Sadly, yes.)

The possibilities are near-endless and the same boss will listen for different things, and different times, depending on circumstances. (Think how less attentive bosses can be when preparing for big meetings.)

But, generally speaking, bosses have a preferred ‘default’ something that they listen for – and it’s in your best interest to know what that is, and speak directly to it.

A ‘Listen For’ How-To Story

As a relatively new executive, I was having trouble convincing my new boss to even listen to some of my my ideas for improving things. It didn’t matter how hard I tried or how well I prepared – he just was not interested in having those conversations with me.

So I started paying closer attention to the conversations he WAS having with my peers – and the recommendations of theirs he WAS approving.

Now I knew they weren’t all particularly great ideas, but they were still getting his go-ahead – so what the heck was going on?!

The answer had to do with what he was listening for – in his case, problems to solve.

DOH!!

My approach had been to talk in terms of opportunities to leverage, not problems to solve. No wonder pitching ideas based on all the cool extra things they could help us achieve, long-term, were going nowhere!

So I got smarter and started pitching the same ideas in terms of problems that needed to be addressed:

  • Me: Hey, Boss – I need you to know about something that’s showing up on the radar and looks like it could really bite us.
  • My boss: Really? Oh my! What is it? Do you have a solution?
  • Me: Why, yes…I do!

Variations on a Theme

I also used this ‘what they listen for’ concept when I took over responsibility for a department that considered themselves ‘orphans’ and ‘stepchildren’ – and suffered from terrible morale – because that same boss never paid them any mind or gave them much, if any, attention.

My re-frame was to tell staff about his being a professional problem-solver – and a great one at that!

“If he even sniffs a problem,” I said, “he’s on it,” which they knew to be all-too-true from stories they heard from their friends in other departments that reported up to him.

“The fact that he isn’t spending time with us is not an insult – and not a sign he doesn’t care,” I continued. “To the contrary: It’s a compliment – and one of the highest order, because it means that he’s SO confident and SO comfortable with your work, and your ability to make good choices, that he knows he doesn’t have to worry, one bit, about what you’re all doing or be at-the-ready to step in at a moment’s notice, as you know he would, if he thought he needed to. You see, in HIS mind, we are NOT a problem – we are a refreshing relief – which has resulted in him giving us waaaay more autonomy and waaaay more control of what we do than any other area that reports to him. ”

I had their attention!

“Now having that said,” I said, “I get how ‘recognition for a job well done’ is, sometimes, needed. So, my commitment to you is that within the next 30 days, I’ll get him to meet with us all to personally thank you, and acknowledge that what I’ve just said is true.”

Which I did to the delight and renewed vigor of my staff.

How? By telling my boss that I had a serious problem in my department that was affecting employee productivity and morale, and work quality – which is was. “What’s your recommendation?” he asked. “With your help,” I replied, “I think we can solve it in just one conversation – 10-15 minutes; 30, max. All you have to do is tell explain this…”

His reply: “Schedule it.”

One Last Point

In listening for ‘what bosses listen for’, it’s also helpful to hear what topics capture their immediate attention – even when they’re crazy-busy or just otherwise occupied. Things maybe like:

  • active problem updates
  • key information for important upcoming meetings
  • news about what one of their key stakeholders wants
  • explanations of extraordinary budget variances
  • progress in holding vendors to account
  • something urgent that s/he may find out or be asked about before your next scheduled meeting, together

Knowing these ‘hot topics’, or at least having a solid sense of them, can really help you communicate much more powerfully with your boss – especially at the very beginning of a conversation.

Give any of this a try and let me know what kind of traction you get from it.