A recent comment on the blog has got me a little hot under the collar. I don’t do it often, but today I’m dedicating the post to a response.

The comment was about the October 25th post “How do say ‘no’ to a good idea.” The gist was that my advice missed a common scenario…

“The leaders I work with struggle with saying no to a good idea that cannot be done because it is not a priority for senior management – where priorities shift and seem to be more politically based. What if a leader knows it is a good idea that could benefit your customer but because it doesn’t add to the prestige of your direct superior it won’t get funded?”

First let me say that it’s exactly the kind of comment I love to receive because it’s authentic and thought provoking—so keep these kind of comments coming!

What upset me about the comment is the widely-held belief that senior management is politically motivated and only behind ideas that add to their own prestige. We have got to stop perpetuating this perspective—it’s tearing our organizations apart and making adversaries of people who should be allies.

I work with hundreds of senior leaders each year. I spend days and days (and breakfasts, lunches, and dinners too) with teams full of them. We talk business and we also talk about what makes them tick and their greatest fears, concerns, and vulnerabilities. I can honestly tell you that very, very few of these people knowingly put their self-interest above what’s best for their organization. They are trying to get ahead by getting the organization ahead.

Walk a mile in their moccasins for a moment.

Priorities Change

The comment said “where priorities shift and seem more politically motivated.” It’s true, priorities change; probably more frequently than they should. In my experience, that’s because the business environment is changing at an unprecedented pace. Suddenly your competitor has found a new advantage, your customers are making unreasonable demands, the regulators are imposing new rules, and for some reason your suppliers have decided to change the game.

No one in senior management is really sure how to create sustainable competitive advantage but everyone is very afraid to be the one who frittered it away. They are human beings, taking in complex information, facing an inordinate amount of pressure, and making the best decisions they can about what to prioritize.

One other thing most managers don’t think about. Although you think they have control at the top of the hierarchy, don’t underestimate the role your Board of Directors and even activist shareholders play in those priority changes. Those in senior management have their masters too.

You See Trees, They See Forest

Another problem with judging from below is that you don’t have the full picture. While it might feel to you as though the priorities are politically based, they are probably just based on a complex set of factors that you don’t have line of sight to. What feels like politics from your vantage point is actually based on something completely justified. For example “we just got a failing grade from the regulator on our internet security so all IT projects are suspended until we get that fixed.” It’s true: priorities changed. And when a regulator can literally put you out of business, you put everything else aside.

When priorities change, ask what’s going on. Don’t ask in a cynical way, just ask so you can see the forest, not just the trees. And if sometimes there isn’t a good answer, have a little faith. In the case where your internet security could be breached, senior management can’t really run around the company telling everyone, can they?

Make Your Case

It’s all too common that managers make assumptions about what will and won’t be approved without actually making the effort to plead the case. Part of the problem here is lazy managers thinking they can just mention an idea and have it rubber stamped on the spot.

If you think there’s a good idea that would benefit your customers, put a little muscle behind it. How does the suggestion align with the priorities of your department? What evidence do you have that the idea would pay off? How does it fit with other investments and what are you willing to stop doing to free up resources and bandwidth? If it’s really a good idea, it’s worth investing some energy and using some of your influence to get a hearing. Don’t expect senior management to put more energy into the idea than you do.

Speak truth to power

And when something upsets you or makes you feel cynical, have the guts to say it. I’m so tired of people acting as if they’ll be fired if they push back. You might be fired if you’re a jerk about it. But if you say “I was really disappointed that we aren’t going to proceed with Mary’s idea. Can you give me a little more perspective on your decision?” I’m pretty sure you’ll live to see another day. Maybe follow up with questions such as “How would you coach me to share the news with Mary?” “What aspects of the proposal did you think were valuable and how else might we make progress on them?” or “When would it be appropriate to revisit this decision?”

I am done with the negative, biased assumptions being made about senior management. Before you go judging, try imagining life from their vantage point.

Further Reading

Talent Management Shenanigans

Practices that Inhibit Good Talent Management

How to Stop the Cycle of Micro-Management

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