Everyone has a boss. Even the CEO reports to the Board of Directors. When I was a Director of a division of a Fortune 100 company, I learned the key to communicating with management. People, you see, have a hard time approaching managers. They especially have a hard time approaching higher level managers. They communicate by talking about stuff all over the map. They run down a rabbit trail of information. The higher level manager ends up thinking you are nuts and files your name on the “never to be promoted” list.
It really doesn’t have to be this way. Communicating with any level of management, even if you are a manager communicating with other managers, is really simple.
Here’s the simple management communication principle to follow when you are asking management to do something, given to me by a manager two levels higher than me back in that Director’s position: The very first thing in communicating with a manager is to state what you want to have happen.
If what you want to have happen is to make a decision to go this way rather than that way, then state that up front. If what you want is an approval to spend $20,000 to do X, then say up front that is what you want to do. If your position on some function of the business is to advocate for Y, then state that up front. Make it very clear to the manager that this is what you want to happen.
Sounds simple — and crazy. After all, if you walk into a senior managers office and say something like, “Hi Dan, what I wanted to talk to you about today was authorizing a $50,000 out-of-budget project to decrease our cycle time by one day for delivering merchandise to our customers” it sounds pretty up-front, no chit-chat, get a life stuff.
But there are reasons to approach a manager this way. Good ones.
Managers are managers because their role in the job is to make decisions. Who gets what tasks? What projects should be included in this budget? What should our strategic direction be for the company next year? Decisions, decisions, decisions. Managers make them all the time. And the higher the level of management, the more decisions they make.
The purpose of telling a manager what you want to happen up front, then, is to define the decision you want the manager to make. When you define that decision up front, the manager has a clear purpose for the conversation: make a decision to do this, not do this, do something different or ask for more information.
Once you define the “end” of the conversation — what you want to happen — your monologue can then go any direction you want because the manager knows that in the end, the manager needs to make a decision about your request. Instead of meandering down the rabbit hole wondering where you are going, the manager knows that what you are telling him or her is the reasoning that justifies your request for a decision. When you state up front you want approval for a project, the manager then is free to listen to the reasoning to go for it.
Once your manager knows what you are requesting, the questions become better as you present your reasoning. If you say that your work shows a 10% improvement, the manager can ask why that figure is right knowing you want the project approved. Not thinking why this is relevant to whatever it is you are talking about.
Giving your boss a better opportunity to ask questions also means you have a better shot at showing additional work to support your position. Everyone knows the direction you are going; the question becomes how you got there, a much less confrontational position to take.
Seriously, in all my years of management, less than a handful of requests followed this technique. People want to justify everything and then ask for the decision. The problem is the manager doesn’t know where you are going and doesn’t know how to respond to what you are saying. The manager is so busy figuring out where you are going with all this that the manager doesn’t listen to what you are saying.
So say it. Tell the manager what you want to happen. Then explain why. Rinse. Repeat. Get surprised at the level of engagement this brings to your relationship with your manager. Then start counting how often you get what you want and how often your coworkers don’t.
Ask what you want to happen up front. Simple, isn’t it?