Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Five ways to be a good executive wingman

Every once in awhile, it happens. You are in a review meeting of some kind with your boss or, worse, your boss' boss. The topic is some contentious issue your group is having with some other group and inevitably the big question comes from the most important person in the meeting and is directed to you:

"Can you come to the meeting I have with the other high level manager on this as my back up?"

That knot you feel in your stomach as the question hangs in the air is the realization that you are pre-whacked out Tom Cruise as Maverick and you've just been ordered to go after Soviet MIGs as Val Kilmer's wingman.

What this manager has asked you to do is come to a meeting with high powered people and make sure he or she doesn't make a fool of themselves because you understand the details that nobody else does. While you can turn this into a positive, it puts you in a very difficult situation because the stakes are usually higher than you are used to in meetings like this and there is a probability you can inadvertently make somebody responsible for your raises look like an idiot. That's bad.

Here are 5 tips to consider when being put in this situation to help insure your continued employment:

1) Unless absolutely necessary, don't say, "no".

When your boss' boss tells you to do something, you do it. End of story.

When it is your own boss and you have a good relationship you might be able to get away with turning something like this down, but the higher up the chain of command it goes, the more you have to risk by saying "no" to it. If you must decline for whatever reason, don't just say "forget it" without explanation. My favorite current line for things like this is, "Unless you are willing to pay for my divorce attorney, I can't do that." I'm pretty sure my boss is sick of that one, actually, but it says, "I've got some family time planned during that 7 pm meeting you want me to go to" in a more lighthearted way. Soften the blow if you have to be negative, but go out of your way to make the commitment.

2) The Boy Scout Motto: Be Prepared

When you make a mistake based on lack of preparation with your peers, you look bad, but only to your peers. As higher level people get involved, the ripple effect of looking bad increase and being prepared gives you at least a fighting chance to look good. Better than if you aren't prepared, certainly.

This one is fresh on my mind because I recently forgot it and looked like a fool. I was asked for a dollar estimate I made on a project and not only did I not have the correct spreadsheet open already, I had trouble finding it. I looked unprepared and unprofessional, which I was absolutely guilty. Have all the data and diagrams you might possibly need at your disposal up front so you can quickly refer to them if you need them.

3) If at all possible, play Cyrano over IM.

In my current job, people are spread all over the world and, as such, most of the meetings are over the phone. You can pull this off in person too if everybody in the room is connected to the LAN with a laptop, but the idea is that, like the famous scene in the Edmond Rostand play, if you can feed information to your executive without speaking it's better for everyone. Your executive looks like he or she is infinitely knowledgeable on the subject at hand even though you really are. That won't be forgotten when it comes time for stock options to be handed out, especially if you remind everybody about it when preparing for your performance evaluation.

4) Don't speak unless prompted

These meetings tend to be very political and there are likely issues or past relationships at play that you have no idea about. Nor do you want to, trust me. Your executive knows what he or she is doing. Let them do all the talking if at all possible, which is why the IM trick is important. He or she might say something that isn't entirely correct or even something that is a bold face lie. Don't interject a correction because there might be a reason for that exaggeration or fabrication you don't understand.

If you are asked something by your executive, only answer what was asked. Don't expand your answer. When you are asked something by the rival executive, pause for a moment to give your executive a chance to cut you off so you can avoid answering. If that interruption never comes, again, only answer what was asked.

5) Never, ever contradict your executive.

There may be times when you are forced to say something and it will be the exact opposite of what your executive just said. Tread carefully through this situation with careful word choice. Start by restating what your executive said and give them a chance to refute themselves one last time. If that doesn't work, despite being the definitive source of information, soften your comments with something like, "It's a little more accurate to say . . ." or "That's very close, but it works more like this. . . " and then give far more details about the topic than your executive did. This will give the appearance that your executive was simply not clear on the lower levels of the topic at hand and avoid you having to directly contradict them.

Final thoughts

These situations can pay off big when it comes for rewards, but they can hurt you too if they don't go well. Document what happened immediately following the meeting so you can track it for your performance evaluation later. It's not exactly a life or death situation, but when following these steps and adding your own common sense, you can take advantage of this opportunity to make someone with really high status look good. As my Dad once told me, that's a lot more important than making yourself look good.

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 12:30 AM   0 comments links to this post

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