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Find out why the boss wants details

Coach's Corner--August 31, 2009

The Client
Name: Phil
Age: 38
Title: VP, Business Operations
Industry: Insurance
Issue: Finding an appropriate level of detail
Q. I’m trying to change my boss’ expectations about how much operational data I have top-of-mind. He (the CEO) asks about very micro points in meetings; if I spent time tracking that, I wouldn’t have time for the important aspects of my job. Suggestions?

A. Taken to an extreme, a focus on detail can cause an executive to become a data parrot. But sufficient information is needed to ensure sound decisions. The key is finding a balance.

The inner game
First, address your emotions. It can be embarrassing to be unable to answer questions, or frustrating to be asked things that you think are out of sync with the discussion. Assess your feelings so that you can remain level-headed.

Then, do some diagnosis. How often do his questions seem to have a purpose compared with being just “nice to know”? Decide if you’re overreacting or if there really is an issue. Consider underlying issues. His desire for detail could come from lack of trust, a general orientation to data, or lack of knowledge about other aspects of your role.

Your overall relationship with your boss may be a factor, depending on whether it’s mutually respectful, tentative, or marked by mistrust. Be honest with yourself about how you feel about him, looking at your tone as you think about him. Then, take his perspective into account, thinking about how he may perceive you. Some differences may just come down to style. If he’s generally a detail person while you tend to be big picture, a lot of unintentional friction could result.

Finally, envision an ideal work relationship. What would you like him to be asking? What do you need from him? What do you have to offer that he might be missing? Bottom line: How could you enhance his and your company’s success even more?

The outer game
Your first step is a conversation with your boss. Be nonconfrontational and ready to listen. Plan what you’d like to know from him. For example, you might want his feedback on why he asks for so much detail. Be ready to share your perceptions and ways that you think the communication could be more effective.

Once you understand each other better, find ways to manage meetings more constructively. For example, if he feels in the dark about operations, develop a set of indicators that help him understand the business and keep him up to date. Know in advance what information will be needed for specific agenda items and have it ready. Clarify how the data will help the discussion and be able to give conceptual answers. 

If his questions are driven by trust issues, you have different work ahead. If you don’t trust him, consider your fit on this team. If he doesn’t trust you, it’ll take a lot of courage from you to initiate conversations that may lead to uncomfortable feedback. But this’ll help you grow, and will likely be worth the effort.

The last word
Your boss’ questions may be a minor quirk or a sign of a more major issue. Get on the same page by analyzing the situation and determining the appropriate action.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted August 31, 2009
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