Dealing with challenging senior managers

Some senior managers can be quick to give their agreement when presented to, whilst others can be slow to be convinced. They might overtly challenge the recommendations and supporting fact base, or ask new questions that haven’t been raised before, or they might just be elusive. Being challenged by a senior manager in this way can be unnerving – both in understanding why they are raising such complex and sometimes off piste questions, and in staying confident in why the recommendations are right, and the facts and data that support them.

Walking in their shoes

Senior managers might be slow to support your recommendations for a number of reasons. Perhaps you have caught a senior manager at a bad time when they are unwilling to consider recommendations or make decisions, eithers because their head is elsewhere or they are tired and under pressure. Or it might be for more positive reasons, such as they want to test the recommendations to ensure that they have been well thought through and that there are no downsides. Or it might be because they are nervous about what they’re really being asked to sign up to. In these situations it is important to answer any questions or concerns that they have confidently – whilst simultaneously listening for what’s really concerning them and thereby giving them the reassurance that they need. Below is a technique that I call “Dance Baby Dance” that has helped me to hold my ground when challenged by senior managers who wanted to test whether the work was well thought through and accurate, and whether there were any issues or downsides that they should be aware of.

“Dance Baby Dance”

I met a senior Board member (one of the top three people in the company) for the first time at 7am on a Monday, to present some quantitative research data on what drives customer behaviour. He spent the first 15 minutes of the hour-long meeting firing a series of complex statistical questions at me at rapid speed, assessing which statistical techniques we had used and why, to see if I knew my subject or if I flinched. For example, are the questions in my comfort zone, or do any bamboozle me? Do I answer all of the questions confidently, or do any fluster me? Once he saw that we knew our subject and had considered and discounted a number of options for sound, logical reasons, he visibly relaxed – and we successfully sold in the findings and ‘so whats’ of the data analysis. Similarly, when I was a brand manager, I had to redo every piece of packaging copy for more than thirty Olay stock keeping units (SKUs). When I took them to the marketing director for approval, his opening question was whether he would find even one mistake when he read through them that night. Without hesitation, I answered that he would find no mistakes. Because of my confident reply, he signed the paperwork then and there, without any further checking. I call this scenario “Dance Baby Dance” – imagining that they are firing bullets at my feet and thus forcing me to dance.

In summary

To get the Board members on-board, it’s important to win over their hearts as well as their minds, by ‘walking in their shoes’ and systematically addressing their concerns. When bombarded with questions, I’ve found that the trick is to hold my ground and answer confidently, with the aim of recognising and addressing their real underlying concerns. If I do this well then I typically find that they soon visibly relax. See how Ruth helps clients through consulting, training, speaking and coaching. Connect with Ruth on LinkedIn here.

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