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UK: Taming the boss. - Taming the boss - Facing powerful executives can be disconcerting at the best of times, and downright terrifying if they are unpredictable How should you confront them and come out with their support and respect? Paul Pivcevic puts

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Taming the boss - Facing powerful executives can be disconcerting at the best of times, and downright terrifying if they are unpredictable How should you confront them and come out with their support and respect? Paul Pivcevic puts forward some techniques for entering the lion's den and emerging triumphant.

So you have an idea and you're about to take it into the boss's office. Trouble is you haven't crossed this power threshold before - or you have and it wasn't fun. The boss can offer a well of welcome or be a virtual beast. How do you play it to bring his power on your side?

'High powered people will only want to hear the headlines,' says Bill Kerr, a trainer with 15 years of experience in teaching the skills of influencing others. 'Once you've done your preparation, you will have two or three headline benefits of your idea. Be brief - don't go on. And use progress-testing questions such as: 'Should I explain more or move on? Is that enough detail?' and only move on when you have agreement. And make sure your idea is achievable.'

Sir John Egan, the former head of Jaguar who now runs BAA, operator of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports, is a powerful boss who doesn't mind talking about the kinds of people who do well in dealing with him in the workplace.

'I once had a man in this office who danced about the room like a leprechaun, giving long explanations.

I would interrupt with, 'So this is what we're going to do ...'

"Wait, wait!' the leprechaun would say, and there would be more explanation.

'Now I certainly like enthusiasm, and I don't want people to bore me to death, but I like to define what I want for the sake of time and speed.'

It is a characteristic of the most powerful people that they will have a clear sense of where they're going. 'Wherever I've worked, I try to be clear about what we are trying to achieve,' says Egan.

How these leaders get there is then a question of style. 'I'm usually pushing for something revolutionary, and it may be a weakness, but I don't usually hear revolutionary things from others around me,' says Egan.

Tim Watts is chairman of Pertemps, the employment agency. His vision has taken the still-private company to a turnover of more than £200 million with 20,000 flexible workers on the payroll. It took the honours as the UK's number one customer service company, as judged by BT and the Daily Telegraph.

He wants his people to be clear about their vision, too.

'We work with affirmations. We encourage people to write down their personal goals,' he says.

'I ask to discuss these with them from time to time. What I say is, unless you know where you're going and can write it down, you'll never get there.'

There are two other behavioural points the experts agree on regarding powerful figures. First, don't confuse respect with deference. As a rule powerful people have no time for cringing courtiers.

They do deserve your respect, though, whatever problems there may have been in your relationship or in your judgment of their actions. Always accept actions in the past for what they are and don't let judgments or assumptions cloud the meeting. Recognise people's good intentions.

Second, do not rush what you are saying. It is commonly agreed that 80% of communication is non-verbal; it is carried in your posture and gestures, and in the tone, pace and energy behind what you say. Focus on how you want to present yourself, rather than purely on the content.

If your idea receives a negative reaction, your first response might be to cave in or start babbling. Tom Lambert, author of The Power of Influence, proposes a solution in the form of a contrived acronym, SARAH:

Stop talking, even if it means a difficult silence before your powerful opposite starts talking. Then ...

Actively listen, as though your life depends on it.

Reflect back what you are hearing.

Act with empathy. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, says: 'Empathy is understanding what someone feels without them having to tell you.' And finally ...

Handle it all with calm and sensitivity. This will make it easier for you to clarify what are their objections. And throughout, deal with what the person is actually saying. Never try to second guess 'what they really mean'.

Your meeting successfully concluded, what do you need for the rest of the office week? 'The word I like is consistency,' says Watts. 'What I can't stand is those who do one good job, then one bad job - a headache one day and enthusiastic the next.'

Contrast the view of Heather Rabbatts, chief executive of Lambeth Council.

'I am looking for good communicators, leaders in their field - people who are adept at learning about new areas. After all, what you may be managing today might not be there tomorrow. And for people to be supportive and collegiate, and not to fear change.' She also likes people being unashamed about what they do not know.

Egan agrees: 'I'm really pleased to see when people have a clear set of objectives but that they are quite clear with you on their areas of uncertainty.'

This is a good lesson to remember: don't be defensive. Powerful people see this as time-wasting - time they could be spending getting closer to their vision. Distinguish between being defensive and offering constructive challenge.

Rabbatts reveals: 'Oh, I often get: 'Look Heather, that's a really whacky idea but it is never going to work.' That's what I need to hear.' She concedes that her strength is in concept, not detail.

'I need good technical specialists around me to work on detail, and give me good critical analysis. Just saying 'It's never going to work,' I wouldn't welcome.'

Egan says: 'I don't mind being challenged. I often think everybody's wrong and this person is right.'

Watts goes a step further. 'We empower people, and as an empowered person there is a formal procedure for challenge. The first thing you must do as an empowered person is ask me why we do it this way - why not do it another way.'

These people are the more enlightened. Power in the hands of the unstable or fearful can uncage something more dangerous. Many of us have experienced it.

This story of a sales visit surfaced at a recent workshop: 'Before the meeting, I already knew he was tough. He eats hotter curries than anyone else, drinks everybody under the table at the annual conference.

'I arrive at the factory; I've been there before but never to the fourth floor. Reception tells me to go straight up to the fourth floor, third door on the right. 'Go in, they're waiting for you.'

'The corridor is all oak panelling, pictures of the founding fathers, thick carpet. I go into his office. The decor is pigs! Stone pigs, wooden pigs, pig paintings. A mountain of a man stands up. 'We're not ready for you,' he shouts. Two minutes later he calls me back in. Before he says hello, he's thrown my document on the table. 'Well, we don't want any of this crap,' he starts.'

If you know you're about to look down the throat of this kind of beast, try to spend a few minutes just before the meeting doing a simple visualisation.

Recall a meeting or a piece of work that went well. Flood your mind with the positive things you felt at the time. Remember how good, how effective you can be. Then plan the first minute of the meeting: how will you take off your coat, where and how will you sit, what will you do with your hands. How will you arrange your papers, and what will be your introductory words.

Intimidation will only work on you if you allow the upper hand to the implied negative judgments of you. Once you are ready, ask them how they would like to play the meeting. Give them the chance to exercise power.

Bob Dowd, a management trainer, remembers a volatile boss. 'He was a gentle man, but knew his weakness was losing his rag. If you didn't take much notice, he always apologised later. Half his staff loved him, half hated him. But if you cowered to him, or lost your rag back, he couldn't deal with it. The people who got on best with him stayed calm, and later said what they thought of his behaviour.'

Another way to deal with unpredictable people, says Bill Kerr, is to catch them doing it right. 'Reinforce the behaviour that works for you. Make the point that you found it useful the way they had run such and such a meeting - or that what he or she said had really motivated you. Try it, for example, with a boss who finds it difficult to give you positive feedback.'

But what of those who are power figures to you but pussycats to others?

You seem to be so much more fearful or awkward with them than almost anyone else. Goleman files this experience under the category of 'emotional hijacking'.

Essentially, the amygdala, a small almond-shaped part of the brain that stores our emotional experience, reacts to powerful emotional memory before the thinking part of the brain has had a chance to take stock of what is happening. We are in some way relating our experience of the present power figure to an experience with a power figure in the past, where the outcome of the encounter was not good. Such a figure might have been a parent, a significant relative, or a teacher.

The emotional part of our brain tells us that the outcome here and now must be the same. The trick is to do whatever you can to keep your attention in the present, on what is happening now. One good tip is to do simple breathing exercises: breathe in, then exhale to a count of three or four, pausing at the end of the exhalation, then breathe in again.

Keep repeating until it becomes a natural relaxed breathing pattern.

You will find your body naturally realigns itself so that your posture is positive for a meeting, with good eye contact and no crossing of legs.

High emotional intelligence - self awareness, impulse control, persistence, empathy and social skills - are high on Rabbatts' list of requirements.

'Ultimately, although we're a team, the buck stops with me. Once I have made a judgment, when we walk out of the office I expect collective ownership of the decision, even if you may have lost the position. I'm not looking for point-scoring; I'm looking for people to contribute over and above their sectional interest to the greater good, which at times might mean a diminution of your personal power.'

As a woman chief executive, she admits it is still lonely doing the top job. At smart cocktail parties, the first question is: whose secretary are you?

'I always feel the jury's still out on you as a woman chief executive. I feel I need to continually prove I'm up to the job. You never get the benefit of the doubt.'

Jane Marshall of ABA Consultants, an international management and training consultancy, adds: 'Powerful men feel they are powerful by right. Powerful women are either very conscious of being powerful, and work hard at it, or they don't know it.

'You need to listen very carefully and intently to powerful women. Work out what are her personal objectives and phrase what you want through this. Does she want status, does she want to prove she knows more than you do, or is it about a social relationship with the underlying warning: just because I'm friendly doesn't mean you can walk all over me.'

If there was a single tip on how to deal with some powerful people, it came in Rabbatts' closing words: 'A bit more affirmation would be nice.' She adds quickly: 'Of course as a chief executive you shouldn't need it.

But it would be nice sometimes to have people say, 'You really moved us on in that meeting'.'

Paul Pivcevic is a management consultant and executive mentor


1 Understand their power preferences

What kind of power do they enjoy? Check it out with others, then play to their needs

2 Do not be afraid to challenge

Powerful people like to be challenged about their ideas and thinking processes

3 Take the lead

Ask questions and explore ideas with them - give them material to work with

4 Don't talk behind their backs

They will find out

5 Compensate where they are weak

Identify weaknesses and try to fill the gap

6 Use visualisation techniques

Before a meeting, visualise the outcome - how you might overcome objections and how you will deliver the benefits of your idea

7 Mirror their behaviour

Copying their verbal and non-verbal style can sometimes put them at their ease

8 Don't try to change them

That's not your job. Accept your limitations

and, if you get a knock from them, remember that it is not a reflection on you

Source: ABA Consultants.

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