Getting the Boss's Ear
WHEN YOU SPEAK OUT at meetings, do you ever get the feeling you are not being heard? Do you want to become a trusted advisor but are shut out of the important meetings or are invited too late to make a difference? In these cases, by the time you become aware of what is going on or are permitted to participate, all the assorted advice-givers, including outside consultants and attorneys, have staked out the avenues you might have successfully recommended.
One reality of wanting influence is that there is only so much face time, airtime, meeting time, and thinking time available to those who run organizations. As you get closer to the top, there are fewer of these important people, and the competition to get their attention is intense. Therefore, having influence requires a personal strategy of accomplishment, commitment, and personal progress that will set you apart from other managers.
To become a trusted advisor, you must first determine your current level of influence. Then, you can build on this influence by being useful to the boss and the company at every opportunity.
Your level of influence in the organization is reflected in how other people treat you. If you are a trusted advisor, the CEO holds up meetings, waiting for you to arrive to make important contributions or give interpretations of current events. People remember what you say and quote you in other places and venues even when you are present. Other managers tell your stories and share your lessons as though those stories belonged to them. Employees learn things from you and often acknowledge this fact to you and to others. Leaders seek out your opinions and ideas or share their agendas and beliefs with you in the hope that you will influence the behavior of others more senior than you.
If none of these situations seem familiar to you, it is time to get to work gaining influence. Every time you are in the vicinity of the boss or another leader, there are five things you should expect of yourself, because they will be expected of you: Be ready to provide relevant information immediately; offer options; have expertise beyond your own department; give next step guidance; and bring in other voices.
Too many advisors ask lots of questions, leave the room, and then come back at another time with advice. Most bosses, when asking questions and working on problems, are looking for answers immediately. To be truly helpful, you should stay well informed and be prepared to give information about your function, field, or topic of expertise at a moment’s notice.
Additionally, learning more about the company’s challenges can help you provide valuable information at the correct time. For example, in a tight economy, CEOs are looking for ways to cut costs while maintaining quality. You should be ready to offer instant insight into cutting activities in your department, and you should have suggestions for trimming other functions or departments.
Bosses generally want to design their own solutions to problems and challenges. They look to advisors for the ingredients of those solutions rather than comprehensive answers to entire problems. This is why bosses tend to listen to many voices. They need all the options they can get.
You should be prepared to provide options even when a simple, direct solution seems to be all that is called for. The people in charge know that there are many ways to accomplish a given task; they will respect you more for offering a selection than presenting only one idea. Providing options and then letting the boss make the final decision ensures return invitations to the most important meetings.
Learn to evaluate the ideas of other advisors. CEOs need staff associates, counselors, and consultants who can assess the value of advice from others. Look for the opportunity to build on the suggestions and insights of others while providing additional proposals of your own.
Learn to provide your recommendations after others have already spoken. After offering your own advice, you can incorporate their advice into your own strategic summary, thus delivering a more helpful, nuanced response.
Bosses often anticipate what staff members will say because staff advice is predictable. Bosses assume that they know the basic operation of all departments.
Learn details about other operating areas of the organization. This enables you to give advice beyond your own department. Those who fail to do this will only be called on to answer specific, limited staff questions and will then be told what to do.
When called on to discuss the organization or your place in it, drop the jargon and instead try to talk, think, and give advice in terms the boss can understand and relate to from a management perspective. One way to do this is by telling an effective story about how a peer survived, understood, or solved a problem using the concepts you are suggesting.
Most successful advisors are excellent storytellers. They can relate a current issue or problem to the big picture in a way that will teach something valuable from the CEO’s perspective.
The higher up the bosses are, the more they rely on others for details. What they need is an outside view that helps them identify the next incremental step or the next useful ingredient to continue the process of resolving some management issue. Help them be finishers. Be ready to recommend the next steps.
Sometimes this is as simple as making a phone call or having a contact ready who can speak to the CEO directly. In other cases, you will need to draw on the steps discussed above. Having options ready and presenting them effectively and briefly can ensure that your advice is valuable, trusted, and put to use.
Finding additional, credible alternative voices may seem unnecessary and frustrating, but it is essential from a CEO’s perspective. Control your irritation when the boss listens to others rather than immediately acting on the advice you provide. In these cases, it is helpful to understand what bosses need. Your contribution is incremental. The boss’s work is to find the final answer.
The more difficult or threatening the question, the more voices the boss will want to hear before deciding. Rather than being offended or defensive, you should be on the lookout for credible, important people your boss should consult on various issues.
This skill will be tremendously important in building your credibility. Demonstrating that you have the strength, character, and courage to bring in other voices speaks powerfully in your favor. If the boss takes the advice of a person you recommended, so much the better. Even though the advice came from someone other than yourself, you get power and leverage from providing key strategic assistance when it was needed.
You know that you are a trusted advisor if you are always in the room when important decisions are made. Your destiny advances only when your bosses achieve theirs.
James E. Lukaszewski is a member of the ASIS International Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council and a frequent speaker at ASIS events. He is the author of Why Should the Boss Listen to You? The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor.