More On Executives (are Smarter than You Think; the 5 Biggest Misconceptions)

A recent post got a surprising amount of feedback – at least, different feedback than my other stuff. No flames, just folks agreeing with the ideas and wanting to engage in more direct conversation (phone calls, as opposed to blog comments or email – interesting …)

I’ve noted that people like to second-guess and/or heap scorn upon their executive management team, seeing them as disconnected, clueless, and capable of speed without forethought. However, my experience tells me these attitudes are way out of line. Spend time in one-on-one meetings with them; listen when they ask probing questions during staff meetings, operational reviews, or any other meeting where they’re going over details and weighing in with opinions. You can develop a much better understanding of where they’re coming from if you attempt to walk a mile in their shoes – or just empathize a little bit.

These are common misconceptions that a typical organization has of the executive team …

They Don’t Make Decisionsthey just keep asking me for my opinion when I need them to make the call! Actually they’re doing two things correctly; managing their time (because they can’t micromanage the whole company) and empowering the organization (i.e. giving you 1> credit for having half a brain, and 2> some leeway to make decisions). Remember, most organizations need problem solvers, not problem definers.

They Don’t Consider All the Anglesthey skim the details and focus only on the big picture. People often make decisions without considering all the options and all the details; it’s a time management technique, relying on intuition backed by experience. It’s just a tactic to help manage time, get on to the next thing – so don’t take it personally. A better approach would be to give them the overview, let them know your decision for the go-forward approach – and then ask for feedback. If they disagree with your fundamental approach, I guarantee they will not be shy – they’ll let you know right away. If you don’t want them to make snap decisions that have huge impact, reduce their snap decisions to minor fine-points, and guide them where you want. If you really know your business and your audience, the executive input should be fine-tuning, not fundamentals.

They Resist IT / Technologythe dinosaurs just don’t get it! Truth is, they are much more technical than you think. I’ve had executives call out IT baloney about SQL queries, application response time, even e-mail attachments (I was told this attachment was too big to open – but later I was driving down the freeway at 80 miles an hour reading it on my Blackberry!). They don’t need to understand the technology in gory detail, and you don’t have to educate them on the nitty gritty – but they certainly need to understand how a given technology decision impacts total cost to implement, quality of the deliverables, speed-to-value, and ongoing cost to maintain.

They Aren’t Paying Attention Well, not exactly. They will ask you to cut the details and get to the punch line, typically because they’re thinking on a completely different level. You’re probably worried about your departmental budget, annual performance goals, and/or resource constraints that put work for the next few weeks in jeopardy. They are thinking about making the month, making the quarter, and managing the owner’s/shareholders’ expectations for the next quarter or fiscal year. Also, they’ve got review sessions with engineering, marketing, operations, and finance – all scheduled between now and the end of the day. So, forgive them if they’re not up to date on the differences between IE 7 and Firefox.

They Don’t Understand the Problem Domain Actually, they typically have a deeper / more nuanced understanding of the business than most. They know (intuitively and factually) how to impact key numbers on the financials, and what levers to pull when they want to make a noticeable change. Questions that seem out of left field are actually efforts to make a connection between “why should I invest in this project?”, and “how does this tie to one of my levers?”.

Recognize that the executive team comes at the business from a different angle, and learn to listen to what is important to them – you’ll raise your project success rate, demonstrate your value to the company – and maybe chill out a bit.

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.