Managing Upward – Tips on Handling a Demanding Boss

“My boss is driving me nuts” vented Richard, a director at a large software company and client of ours. “He’s constantly changing his mind on what my team’s priorities should be.” I personally heard three such executives in December exasperated that they were being asked to get more done with less while also being asked to handle frequent changes in direction and priority. Here are three recommendations I passed along to them. More are coming in additional parts to this blog entry. I’d love to hear your inputs as well.

Commit to goals and deliverables not priorities

The economy is causing many executives to drive their teams harder to produce results. With competitors aggressively chasing after fewer bucks there’s more pressure than ever for the businesses to change sales/marketing approaches and even to tune product strategy. That leaves department heads with the impossible task of having to deliver on prior commitments while accommodating requests from above on new initiatives. The only way out is to talk goals and deliverables not priorities. Here’s an example:

Priority Goals and Deliverables
More leads for sales 1,500 prospect inquiries by March 1, 2009; 500 qualified leads with a lead score of at least 70 points by April 1, 2009.
Launch new product XYZ Launch criteria met February 1, 2009; $3M incremental revenue within one quarter of launching product XYZ
Update the website Complete launch of new design, messaging, and content for the 10 most critical pages by March 1, 2009; achieve 20k page views per month on updated pages

What if you only got agreement on the priorities and not the specific goals and deliverables? It would be very easy for the boss to change priorities or add new priorities because there’s not an obvious tie to the business in terms of outcomes. So instead, what if the Marketing VP were to “contract” to the goals and deliverables” above?

Naturally the Marketing VP can’t control all the elements in these deliverables but it will help tremendously if you could align peer VPs along concrete goals and deliverables. It’s in your interest to align your peers because your success will depend on it and your boss will value that far more highly than reacting to priorities du jour.

Talk tradeoffs not task lists

So going back to Richard’s predicament on handling changing priorities, a short list of deliverables helped him handle new requests by describing the impact on prior commitments. He asked his boss “So would you say that launching product XYZ by February 1 is worth slipping the website project by a month?” His boss didn’t like the parental technique of laying down options but understood better the implication of his requests. Richard now has a “plan of record” with concrete deliverables laid out for the next year. Anytime a significant new request comes along, he can now have a rational discussion on trade-offs to the current plan. He’s in a much better position to negotiate a win/win.

Communicate results not activities

My friend, Walt Thinfin, CIO of Visioneer, said that he is like Richard in many ways because his boss, the CEO, will place new demands on him while expecting results from prior commitments. He’s practically being asked weekly what he’s done for the business lately. Walt’s solution is communicating results often. No one is ever remembered for having executed their priority list. Rather, executives are seen as heroes for having achieved specific goals and deliverables. Go back to the table above and ask yourself which ones would have a bigger affect on a performance review, bonus plan, or even just recognition among the executives? The key then is to keep your boss apprised of bi-weekly on progress on these goals and deliverables.

Please submit your comments and thoughts on how to handle a tough boss. Your peers will really appreciate your inputs.

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