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.


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.

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You Are More Than Just That One Slice


Who here, among us, ‘defines’ themselves in terms of their ‘weakest’ parts? I know I do. Sometimes, anyway. More than certainly serves me, I’ll say.

Which is why I’ve been recently thinking about the labels we give ourselves – and others, for that matter. Smart. Dumb. Introverted. Extroverted. Me. You. Us. Them.

Why do we do that? What purpose do they serve?

Labels Simplify Our Worldview

Life’s complex. So if I can simplify it, in any way – like reducing the intricacies of an entire human being down to one single word – well, that’d be helpful, right? Efficient, maybe, but not necessarily helpful.

Indeed, the more we get to know about someone – including ourselves – the harder it is to label them accurately. We’re all more than just one thing and any one label we use will likely mask all sorts of other attributes they help to define us – and others – more accurately.

Labels ‘Complexify’ Our Worldview

It’s ironic, but true. the labels we use to simplify things often end up inadvertently complicating them – especially when we choose labels for ourselves that make us feel ‘less than’ and ‘not enough’.

Think about the language you use to privately describe yourself If you’re like most, there’s at least one part of yourself that you feel a little shame about. Don’t fret, it’s natural.

My point is that whatever words or terms you use to describe yourself in that way is a bad idea.

You see, labeling your WHOLE-self based on any particular ‘lesser’ part is not only inaccurate, but it’s doing your self-esteem a grave disservice – the WHOLE of you is, indeed, much, much more than just that one slice of the pie.

“Smart, Capable, AND Learning”

I won’t try to convince you to stop labeling yourself. (Not sure I could.) But if you’re going to give yourself a label, at least make it one that doesn’t deflate your esteem.

According to Nathaniel Branden, author of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, self-esteem is:

  1. confidence in our ability to think, confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life; and
  2. confidence in our right to be successful and happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert our needs and wants, achieve our values and enjoy the fruits of our efforts.

“With high self-esteem,” he writes, “I am more likely to persist is the face of difficulties. With low self-esteem, I am more likely to give up or go through the motions of trying without really giving it my best. The value of self- esteem” lies not merely in the fact that it allows us to feel better but that it allows us to live better – to respond to challenges and opportunities more resourcefully and more appropriately.”

I’ll be writing more about self-esteem in the near future. In the meantime, though, let me suggest that you go order a pizza and think about what this means to you.

“You better cut the pizza in four pieces
because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”
– Yogi Berra



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Your Best Under Stress


Key Traction-Point:

Stress is not necessarily the result of too much work or too many interruptions – it stems from when their demands on you exceed your perceived ability to control them. The key, then, is to focus on better controlling the parts you CAN control.

If you’re like 75% of other Americans, you’ve experienced moderate to high levels of stress in the past month, and often lie awake at night because of it.

Trying to balance the demands of your work and family life can stretch even the strongest among us to the breaking point. But there is a way to be successful and productive even when under stress, says Sharon Melnick,  PhD and author of “Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure’s On.”

In her book she writes that stress is not necessarily the result of too much work or continual interruptions, but rather when the demands of your situation exceed your perceived ability to control them. Every challenge, she writes, can be divided into the 50% you can control and the 50% you cannot.

Read her interview at the Intuit QuickBase blog.

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Seven MUSTS for Successful Criticism

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“Because the art of criticism is so little known, and because 99 per cent of the people are so inept at it, the very word criticism leaves as bad taste in our mouths.” So said Les Giblin in “How to Have Confidence and Power in Dealing with People.”

“The real purpose of criticism,” he continued, “is not to beat the other fellow down, but to build him up. Not to hurt his feelings, but to help him do a job better.”

Giblin then went on to describe a conversation he had with a vice-president of American Airlines about why criticism is both necessary and helpful.

“You know, Les,” said the VP, “a pilot coming in for a landing is a good example of successful criticism. Frequently, his flying must be criticized or corrected by the tower. If he’s off course, the tower doesn’t hesitate to tell him so. If he’s coming in too low he’s told about it. If he is going to overshoot the field, he is corrected. Yet I’ve never heard one of our pilots getting offended by this criticism. I’ve never heard one say, ‘Aw, he’s always finding fault with my flying. Why can’t he say something good for a change?'”

Nor does the air traffic controller say, “Well, if that isn’t the dumbest way ever to come in for a landing.” No, he simply says, “You’re coming in too low.”

The criticism is a tool with which both pilot and air traffic controller used together to achieve some useful end result. So can we.

Giblin’s Seven MUSTS for Successful Criticism:

  1. Criticism must be made in absolute privacy. Doing so any other way engages the other person’s ego against you for even the mildest of criticisms.
  2. Preface criticism with a kind word or compliment. Praise, when given sincerely, has an amazing effect on people. In professional coach training, we’re taught that kind words help people feel “seen,” which is fundamental to helping them bring their best to our coaching conversations. As with coaching, as, ironically, with criticizing.
  3. Make the criticism impersonal. Criticize the act, not the person.  This way, you actually build UP the person while pointing out his/her mistakes. “Instead of saying, ‘You’re no good,’ you say in substance, ‘I think you’re much better than this performance would indicate.'”
  4. Supply the answer. Whenever you tell someone they did something wrong, always follow with how to do it right. “The emphasis should not be on the mistake, but the means and ways to correct the mistake and avoid a repetition or recurrence.”
  5. Ask for cooperation; don’t demand it. “‘Will you make these corrections?’ arouses much less resentment than, ‘Do this over, and for Heaven’s sake, this time see that you get it right!'” And NEVER play the Boss card – “Do it now, because I say so.” Instead, should circumstances require immediate compliance, say THAT instead. Employees understand the distinction and will appreciate you making it known.
  6. One criticism to an offense. “To call attention to a given error one time is justified. Twice is unnecessary. And three times is nagging,” wrote Giblin. “Remember your goal in criticism: to get a job done, not to win an ego fight.”
  7. Finish in a friendly fashion.  “Until an issue has been resolved on a friendly note, it really hasn’t been finished.”

So you probably knew these Seven MUSTS for Successful Criticism, didn’t you. But chances are good that you probably also forgot one or two (or three or four) of them somewhere along the way. Maybe that’s why Socrates said, “Learning is remembering.”

Oh, one more thing about all this: Giblin penned it some 56 years ago! Indeed, “How to Have Confidence and Power in Dealing with People,” was published by Penguin Putnam in 1956.

Want more? There’s an app for that!


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A Sense of Urgency

Book Review »
Title: A Sense of Urgency
Author: John P. Kotter
Publisher: Harvard Business Press
ISBN: 978-1-4221-7971-0

The preface of this fascinating and helpful book starts simply enough: “This is a book about a seemingly narrow issue – creating a high enough sense of urgency among a large enough group of people.”

A narrow issue, but a very real one. Especially when, as the author’s research has found, that a full 70% of all change efforts fail in some way. Why? A lack of urgency. See if you don’t recognize some of the red flags:

  • Instead of saying, ‘We have to deal with this as fast as possible,’ consultants are  brought in to analyze and recommend before any actions are even contemplated.
  • After studying the consultant’s report, a task force is created for implementation, but its participants have insufficient authority to resolve the issues likely to arise along the way.
  • Scheduling task force meetings is a cumbersome and drawn-out process, often taking weeks to coordinate everyone’s calendars (and having to be rescheduled at least once or twice).
  • When the first task force meeting finally does occur, the first order of business is to challenge the appropriateness of the chosen strategy; the second is to establish subgroups.
  • Very little progress is reported at Meeting Two.
  •  Meeting Three is attended by surrogates.
  • There is no Meeting Four.

In contrast to such complacency, Kotter also discusses what he calls False Urgency:

“While complacency embraces the status quo, false urgency can be filled with new activities. While complacency often has a sort of sleepy quality, false urgency is filled with energy… but the energy from anger and anxiety can easily create activity, not productivity, and sometimes very destructive activity.”

 Here’s further comparison between the two:

The real question, of course, is how to build a REAL sense of urgency and Kotter has many suggestions that make the book worth reading. One additional chart I’ll include here, though, lists how you, the boss, can behave (and encourage others to behave) to demonstrate TRUE urgency:


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