I recently wrote a post on how to ask for help or favors from people. This is a related post that will not only help you get the results you want more effectively but will also help earn the respect of your senior people (whether management or your board).
I know you think you know this already. Everybody says that. It surprising how few people actually follow through this this advice. So here goes …
As much as I like to occasionally make fun of having been a consultant early in my career (although I built computer systems rather than just PowerPoint slides), I realize upon reflection that I did learn a lot of great management practices from working in such a large and well-structured organization as Accenture.
One of the most practical pieces of early career advice I got was “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” The message was clear. I hired you because you’re smart. As your senior manager I’m happy to help you any time you need. But I have my own shit to deal with – believe me. You think you have problems? Imagine having 10 people reporting to you all bringing you problems as well as our client and my senior partners. I’m up to my eyeballs in problems. I don’t have the time or inclination to figure out your problems for you.
So what does it mean to bring solutions? Well Brad Feld, who recently visited us in LA, quoted Mark Pincus in saying, “be the CEO of your own job.” So to bring solutions you need to be the CEO of your own job. Diagnose what is wrong before running it up the flag pole. Your layout should be concise, have actions (exactly what you think needs to happen) and have options.
When you bring the solution / problem to others it should be couched like this:
- Problem (2-3 sentences: “we have a morale problem in the company. if we don’t solve it I fear we might lose some of our best tech talent as 5 of our 8 developers are currently underpaid and have been with us for 2+ years. this will set us back dramatically”)
- Diagnosis of why you believe the problem exists (“we have been working long hours for 6 months and in the company for 3 years. our staff are not yet seeing customer success or they’d be feeling better. we are paying less than market. with the pickup in tech hiring we’re seeing a lot of our developers getting calls from other startups.”
- Suggest Solution of what you think the right answer is including time, cost to implement and other asks (such as executive level support for change) (“we don’t have the cash reserves to increase pay. i’d like to allocate an additional 25% of options to each developer above their initial allocation plus i’d like to reserve $5,000 to have a stress relief weekend event where we could blow off some steam.”)
- Options (3-4 in total) (Option 2: “we could obviously do nothing and try to get board members in to talk with developers and try to keep their spirits high. that would certainly help also. but I fear at this point a more substantive offer is necessary.” Option 3: “we could promise pay increases on next fund raising round and not focus on equity. but that fund raising will be seen as uncertain in people’s minds since we haven’t yet scored success with customers. this idea might work but my gut says it will be seen as ‘gladly paying them tomorrow for a hamburger today‘).
- you do need to state what the problem is up front (but make it clear that you have ideas on how to solve it) before asking people to approve something. If you can’t convince somebody more senior that it’s a real problem then they’re obviously not going to be bought into the solution. Try to be specific on the problem. Don’t make it too wide. It needs to be actionable. Having quantification in the problem definition always helps.
- you need to tell somebody your preferred answer. don’t make them guess. everybody hates when you are presenting options and we know that you really have a bias toward an answer but you make us tease it out of you. the ceo of his/her own job would say “this is what I think should happen. are you ok with my proceeding?”
- have real, not fake, back-up options. otherwise you’re not really asking for our assistance, you’re just asking for a “yes” to our only solution. that’s no fun either.
You always have a boss, whether you’re a mid-level manager, SVP or CEO. Heck, even VC’s have bosses (our investors). The higher up the ladder you are the less time you tend to have and the more shit you’re probably dealing with. Senior people love when team members help define problems that need fixing. But they love, love, love when team members bring them solutions. In fact, senior managers surround themselves with solutions people so you might just find your career accelerating.