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.


Leadership Moves #31: Use Your Authority to Make Good Things Happen Sooner

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Great bosses use their authority to unlock important doors for their staff.

  • Is another department causing problems for your team? Use your authority (by calling who needs to be called) to get things moving in the right direction, again.
  • Is there some sort of roadblock that’s slowing down an important project? Use your authority (by authorizing additional headcount or financial resources) to clear it away.
  • Is there some annoying internal process thing that’s unnecessarily frustrating your staff ? Use your authority (by changing a policy or providing additional information) to make it better.

Whatever it is, hit it head on. Make some waves if you have to, but show your staff you’re willing to go to bat for them. Big or small, the impact will be noticeable AND appreciated.

Then, with things realigned, as such, challenge your staff – and their staff – to use THEIR authority to surprise and delight you with what they can now accomplish.

Ready? Go!

 


Leadership Move #30: Model How To Handle Failure

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Quit pretending you’re perfect – even trying to be is a ridiculous timesink.

Excellence versus Perfection

Striving for excellence is good. Striving for perfection is not. To help clarify the difference…

Striving for excellent is a three step ‘competency plus’ model:

  1. What do I need to do to meet the minimum requirements of the assignment?
  2. What might I do to meaningfully exceed those minimums?
  3. Let me go do those things.

Striving for perfection, on the other hand, is a four step ‘never good enough’ construct:

  1. What do I need to do to do a perfect job, here?
  2. Let me go do those things.
  3. Uh-oh, it’s not quite perfect, yet.
  4. Repeat steps 1-4, ad infinitum.

Failure in Failure

Any time we’re working on something that’s both challenging, we’re likely to fail. And what that means is that, from time to time, we’re all going to do something that makes us look a bit…foolish.

So be it.

But it’s how we ‘be’ in those moments of failure and foolishness that makes the biggest difference – as in the difference between a good laugh that reinvigorates everyone around you (including yourself) and a continued awkwardness that erodes your credibility, trustworthiness, and relevance, as a leader and team member.

Indeed, there are few things more absurd than a boss who did something wrong and won’t admit it. Truth is, everyone already knows it was a screw-up – the only question is whether the boss is adult enough to admit it. Or aware enough to see it.

Yet so many bosses think that a clever explanation gets them off the hook.

Not so.

Furthermore, this bizarre face-saving behavior encourages – that is to say, trains – staff to react in similar ways when they err.

To state the obvious, that’s a full 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

Excellence in Failure

Mistakes, slip-ups, and failures are a normal part of business. And while it’s important to minimize them when we can, it’s even more important to show your staff how to appropriately handle them when they do occur.

Defensiveness? Blame? Denial? No.

Lessons Learned? Growth and Development? Perspective? Yes.

Show them how to react.

They’re watching and learning from you – whether you’re doing good or not.

 


Leadership Move #28: Maintain Strong Fiduciary Controls

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To quickly undermine your credibility, as a boss, just mismanage your budget.

Routinely spending too much is, obviously, bad. But it’s important you know that spending too little is also problematic. Why? Because routinely striving to come in UNDER budget – an approach that (far too) many leaders take – also proves you’re ill-equipped, or flat-out unable, to properly manage the company’s money.

Rather, strive for your actuals to come within +/-5% of your budget** – THAT shows you know how to work with money AND make money work for you.

Tips for Maintaining Strong Fiduciary Controls Throughout the Year

  • Review your financial reports within 3 hours of receiving them.
    If you aren’t receiving your financial reports on a timely basis, complain to someone who can do something about it.
  • Note any variances of +/-8%, or more, off of expected amounts**
    Request a written Explanation of Variance (EOV) from the appropriate manager(s) for each and every line item variance.
  • Make sure you actually receive those EOVs from your managers.
    Why? Because you often won’t.
  • Make sure their EOVs make sense.
    Why? Because they often don’t!
  • Adjust spending monitoring and authorization accordingly.
    Variances happen. But it’s your job to insure they don’t continue to happen as a matter of course or because no one was watching what needed to be watched.
  • Insist on hearing the BUSINESS justification for any/all expenditures PRIOR TO any actual spending.
    Be open to requests for budgeted (and non-budgeted) moneys, but always – ALWAYS – require staff to articulate the business need for such expenditures as a prerequisite for even considering their request/proposal. You can do this by simply asking, “What is the NEED, here?”, “Why is it not just a nice-to-have?” and “Why can’t it wait until next year?” and probing into whatever is said. Do this enough, and you’ll find they start answering your questions before you even have to ask them!

Tips for Establishing Strong Fiduciary Controls During Budget Season

  • Pay particular attention to the calendarization of expenses.
    Very few line item expenditures divide neatly over a 12-month period, even though the spreadsheet you’ll be working with will likely auto-populate in that way. Indeed, most mid-year EOVs result from some sort of easily-avoidable calendarization error.
  • Give spending control some thought before the year starts – not just once it’s too late.
    Across-the-board increases are easy enough to propose, but rarely stand up to even the most modest of push-backs. Why dilute your credibility so unnecessarily?
  • Identify two-to-three line items to meaningfully REDUCE.
    Consider how, exactly, you can make that happen. Look, specifically, at large, seemingly fixed, line items: How might you effectively negotiate those rates downward? Also look at where you mis-categorized moneys in the past. Don’t just carry mistakes forward, clean up your mess.
  • Identify two-or-three line items that deserve an INCREASED investment.
    Crisply articulate your rationale (in business terms) for adding to this part of your budget. (Think ‘essential upgrades’.)
  • Identify two-or-three ongoing initiatives to wind down.
    Just because continuing last year’s project is approval-capable doesn’t make it automatically approval-worthy. One of the biggest sinkholes of next year’s money comes from continuing to fund in support of last year’s sunk costs.
  • Identify two-of three brand new initiatives to recommend.
    Again, crisply articulate the business justification for each, being sure to clearly address the ‘Why?’ and ‘Why Now?’ questions.

Showing that you can ably manage money builds trust and credibility in you as a leader … which makes MAINTAINING STRONG FIDUCIARY CONTROLS a very powerful Leadership Move, indeed.

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** To be sure, check with your accounting department to find out what they consider to be acceptable variations in your organization as some uses a tighter +/-3%, while others are far more lax.

 


Leadership Move #26: Explain the ‘Why?’

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Who hasn’t overheard this type of conversation between a boss and employee:

Boss: Do this.
Employee: Why?
Boss: Because I say so.

Given this reality, no wonder employee morale and engagement is so often as low as it is!

Sure, there are times when a crisis or tight deadline might require extreme employee responsiveness, but making them jump through hoops just because you can is bad form.

Why ‘Because I Say So ‘ is NOT Your Best Move

Sure, using these words can seem pretty effective.

  • They seem to save time.
  • They seem to eliminate the need to explain oneself.
  • And they seem to keeps things moving.

Or does they?

Initially, maybe yes. But you have to ask – whose time are you saving? And for how long? Because if you’re thinking that such heavy-handedness doesn’t result in considerable grousing about you behind your back, you’re terribly, terribly wrong.

And does it really eliminate the need to explain oneself? Maybe in this moment, but if your staff can’t figure out the rationale for your request, then they’re likely not going to be able to provide an end-product you’ll be satisfied with. No, chances are much better that they’ll only provide you with what you specifically asked for – what’s minimally required – rather than what you intended for them to do – or what would truly ‘wow!’ you.

As for it keeping things moving? Hardly. In truth, it’s actually far more likely that you’ll just end up creating one gigantic bottleneck as everyone around you simply learns that it’s best to just wait until you to tell them, precisely, what to do.

Besides, it’s just wrong for a boss to be that disrespectful.

Taking Time Saves Time

So is there a better way? Yes, there is: Whenever you have a task or assignment to delegate to someone, spend an extra 15 seconds and explain the ‘why?’ – the business justification – behind your request.

  • Why does the database needs to be scrubbed? Because inaccurate records delay our ability to respond to client concerns in an expeditious manner.
  • Why is the report now needed tomorrow? Because some important decisions need to be made and the report will provide the essential information we need to make them.
  • Why do we need stakeholder approval before this next step? Because while we can certainly wreck this project all by ourselves, the only way for it to succeed is with the support and involvement of our key business partners.

Getting clear on what the ‘why?’ (that is, the underlying business justification) isn’t always easy. But it is wildly important.

 

Why the ‘Why?’ Matters

Knowing, and being able to articulate the underlying ‘why?’ for everything you delegate makes it so much easier to talk in meaningful, relevant and compelling ways. And when your staff understands why it makes sense to be do what you’re asking them to, it becomes that much easier for them to do a better job.

Which makes employee buy-in that much easier.

Which moves things forward that much faster.

Which gives you, and others, much more time to work on what else is important.

Which makes it that much easier for you – and everyone else – to be notably successful.

Is ‘Because I Say So’ Ever Appropriate?

Not in those words, per se, no. But in times of true urgency, when you really do need extreme employee responsiveness, try saying this:

“I want you to know that there is a solid business justification for what I’m asking you to do, even if it’s unclear to you in this moment. And, while I’d be happy to explain the ‘why?’ to you later, if you’d like, because of the urgency of the matter, it’s essential that you take care of it, first, right now, without delay. Agreed?”

A Translucent ‘Why?’

But what if you don’t actually know (or can’t articulate) the ‘why?’ that you’ve been given by someone up the chain? What then? Well, perhaps that means you need to go ask your boss for some additional clarification.

And what if you don’t actually know (or can’t articulate) the ‘why?’ behind your own request? (Hey, it happens.) Well, perhaps – just perhaps – the task you had in mind really doesn’t need to be done, after all.

Hmm, not assigning unnecessary work? What a great way to improve employee morale and engagement!

 


Leadership Move #24: Micromanage…YOURSELF!

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No one likes to be micromanaged. It implies a lack of trust.

And a lack of respect.

And a seeming belief that you just can’t get things done on your own.

Why would anyone LIKE that?!

Many (most?) people, it turns out, don’t.

Truth vs. Perception

Consider a classic case of micromanaging: Someone gets an assignment on Monday that’s not due until Wednesday, and the boss comes asking about it on Tuesday.

Now there may be some really reasonable reasons that have nothing to do with trust or respect or regard.

  • The boss just might be interested.
  • The boss might be really interested!
  • The boss needs to tell his/her boss how things are going.
  • The boss might have just been reminded about the assignment when s/he saw you.
  • The boss is naturally impatient.
  • The boss just wants to be sure you haven’t forgotten about the assignment.
  • The boss just wants to see if you need any help or additional information to make it easier to do what’s been asked.

In all fairness to the boss – or at least bosses, in general – micromanagement isn’t always grounded in a lack of trust or respect or regard for an employee or his or her capabilities.

But more often, than not, it IS at least partially rooted in the boss’s lackluster organizational, planning, and delegation skills.

Thinking it Through

If you think about it, there’s really no reason for a boss to micromanage if that boss has good organizational, planning, and delegation skills – regardless of whether s/he trusts or respects a particular direct report, or not.

Providing consistently clear, concise, meaningful, and deadline-driven assignments is a far easier and much more efficient method for sifting the lumps out of the flour, as it were.

But providing consistently clear, concise, meaningful, and deadline-driven assignments does have a few prerequisites:

  1. The boss must be fairly-well organized – so s/he knows, can remember, or be easily reminded what needs to be done, by whom, and by when.
  2. The boss must know to plan somewhat effectively – so s/he knows what will need to be completed, by when, and why what’s not needed quite yet isn’t needed, quite yet.
  3. The boss must know how to delegate reasonably well – so the items identified in (1) and (2) can be appropriately assigned/worked/completed without unnecessary interruptions.

So dear leaders, if you feel the need TO micromanage…micromanage YOURSELF! Turn your attention inward to improving the three sets of skills listed above by asking yourself, repeatedly, these fairly simple questions:

  • Re: becoming more organized –
    • How well-organized are you?
    • How about now?
    • How about NOW?!!!
  • Re: becoming better at planning –
    • What’s the plan?
    • How about now?
    • How about NOW?!!!
  • Re: becoming better at delegation – 
    • Are you good at it yet?
    • How about now?
    • How about NOW?!!!

See what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that?!!!

The Competency is the Instruction

But let’s say you actually DO spend some energies becoming more organized and better at planning and delegation. What are the likely results?

  1. You’ll actually BECOME better organized – which means you likely won’t need to go looking over your staff’s shoulders to see if you need to ‘re-tell’ them something or ‘first-tell’ them something you forgot to mention in the first place.
  2. You’ll actually learn to plan more effectively – which means you will likely have fewer last-minute crises to dump on your staff and will actually be able to help them better create a space for whatever is likely to be heading down the pike.
  3. You’ll actually be able to delegate more capably – which means you will be able to consistently provide clear, concise, meaningful, and deadline-driven assignments to your staff, thus dramatically reducing the need to micromanage in the first place.

And, most helpfully, you’ll actually be amazed at how much better your staff does – and how much more they’ll come to appreciate the new and improved you, as they naturally become so much more productive and engaged as a way of saying thanks for not being such a pain in the @#%$&!, anymore!

Questions?!