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Coach's Corner--August 4, 2008

Getting the go-ahead to go ahead from a reluctant boss

The Client
Name: Jack
Age: 50
Title: Director, information technology
Time at company:  17 years 
Industry: Biotechnology
Issue: Overcoming boss' foot-dragging
Q. My boss seems to agree with my approach to rolling out a major project in our company. However, he’s been reluctant to give me approval to proceed because of peer pressure. How do I overcome this?

A. Clarify the source of the issues, gain insight into your boss’ situation and show commitment to his success in order to accomplish your goal.

The inner game
Before going into your boss’ shoes, check your attitude. Delays, backtracking, or mixed messages may have led to frustration or anger. Acknowledge your feelings, and let go so that you can get a fresh start.

Now look at your boss’ position. Try drawing a diagram with your boss in the middle, surrounded by all of the people who affect him professionally. Include his boss, his boss’ boss, peers, and you and his other direct reports. For each, consider the politics of their relationships, their communication styles, and the challenges they can present if their needs aren’t met. The deeper you take this, the more insight you’ll achieve. This will also help you understand whether the problems are with the project itself rather than just its rollout.

You’ll probably notice a morass of competing agendas. What’ll make one person happy clashes with another’s needs. This is your boss’ reality. You can help by sorting these out and offering a plan that meets as many needs as possible, and at least mitigates the dissatisfaction that some might feel.

The outer game
Communication with your boss is the starting point; helping him communicate with others comes next.

Meet with your boss to share your view of the situation, using the results of your analysis. Target your approach to his preferred communication style, whether he’s a big-picture thinker or detail guy. Remember that you’re presenting assumptions, not facts. Use the conversation to explore his reservations and ask how you can help sell this project to his peers.

Check on his emotional tone about the project. He, too, may be frustrated; acknowledge that things have stalled and help him move toward a new approach.

Once you’ve agreed on his peers’ agendas, develop action steps for each. If materials are needed, offer to put them together. If it’d be helpful for you to meet with them, make sure you’re available. If their resistance is based on project shortcomings, try to make adjustments to address any legitimate concerns.

Impeccable follow-through will be important. If this is a major corporate project, your boss has a lot on the line, so he’ll be depending on you to help him get it delivered.

It’s also possible that corporate priorities have shifted, and that your project has become important in name only. If this is the case, you still need to know your boss’ expectations, but it may lead to another outcome, such as shutting down the project. In any case, if you don’t discuss it openly with him, you could end up taking the fall for a project failure.

The last word
In this situation, you can’t succeed on your own. Your best path is to help your boss defuse his peers’ resistance through insight and action.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted August 4, 2008
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