How CEOs Can Lead Their Managers In A Direction They Don’t Want to Go

A big hint: it's not about being persuasive. But you can get there by following these five steps.

You’ve decided you need to pursue a critical new objective in your organization. You have the support of the executives closest to you. But even though you’re the CEO, to succeed you will need the energy and buy-in of a much larger group of managers. And this larger group of managers will not be excited about the new objective.

It would be nice if this was a rare occurrence. But it isn’t.

When you’re in this situation, it’s natural to think, “How can I persuade them we need to do this?”

In the more than 20 years I’ve spent working with chief executives on strategy execution, I’ve found it’s natural to think this way. Yet it’s just not productive. The adage “those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still” aptly describes these situations.

Think back to a time when you were a manager and your CEO was doing everything in their power to convince you of the necessity of something you saw very differently. You knew important things they didn’t know, but they were not interested in what you knew. They wanted your agreement, and they probably got it—but did they get your full commitment or just some basic level of compliance?

If all you need from your managers is compliance, you can stop reading right here. But if you really need their commitment, stay with me.

Even if you are a very persuasive person, that attribute may not help you in this situation. To get the commitment of your managers who don’t see eye to eye with you, you will need to trade being “persuasive” for being “transparent,” “understanding” and “involving.” You will not, however, need to compromise on your strategic objective.

Below are five specific steps for gaining buy-in and alignment on a difficult objective. To communicate these steps, imagine that you and a half-dozen of your top vice presidents have gathered a group of managers to move forward on a new strategic objective.

Step 1: Communicate with Transparency. Explain to the managers the current draft of your high-level objectives. These few objectives should be owned at your level and the vice presidents’ level. (We won’t get to objectives at the managers’ level until step 5.) State these objectives with great clarity. I recommend using a single measurement for each objective, a clear starting line (where you are now), a clear finish line (where you need to be) and a deadline.

When you move into steps 2 and 3, you will be looking for critical insights about your draft objectives from the managers. Keep in mind, in step 1, you are not trying to sell anything. You don’t need to. As CEO, you and your VPs own these objectives. You don’t need consensus or agreement and you aren’t going to take a vote. What you need from the managers is additional information and advice that you can choose to take or not take.

Your attitude in Step 1 should be one of transparency. If aspects of these draft objectives excite you, share that. If aspects concern you, share that too. Let them know how you got here and why. Also, let them know the part they will play in steps 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Step 2: Clarify. Organize the managers into tables with five or six at each table. Ask them to make a list of all the clarifying questions they can think of regarding your high-level objectives. Explain that you do not want feedback until step 3. Then have each table share their clarifying questions with you.

It’s vital that, as you answer these questions, you do not get defensive or try to sell them. Be prepared to consider aspects of your objectives you had not thought of before. I am always amazed at how many clarifying questions people ask about objectives that seemed, to me, self-explanatory. Don’t feel like you need to have all the answers. You won’t. This is a beginning. By taking all the clarifying questions first, you have greatly reduced the amount of feedback coming in step 3.

Step 3: Feedback. This portion can be difficult if you forget what you are doing. Keep telling yourself, “We want this feedback!” Some of the feedback is going to come at you in a way that makes you want to argue or debate. You don’t have to. These objectives don’t belong to them.

Your managers are advising you. You don’t need to argue with an advisor. I should know—I am an advisor, and no one feels the need to waste time arguing with me.

In this step we are moving from transparency to understanding. Understanding is essential for two reasons. First, you need to understand what your grand objectives look like from the lower echelons of the organization. Your managers are nearer the front lines and can see things that you and your VPs cannot. While your managers may not always articulate their concerns in a compelling way, it doesn’t mean they don’t have vital information you need to be thinking about.

Second, you will gain more trust and support trying to understand someone than virtually anything else you do. Please note: understanding does not mean agreeing. Sympathy is agreeing with someone. Empathy is understanding them. Best-selling author Stephen R. Covey has written that the greatest need of the human soul is to be understood. For most people, just being understood is more important than being agreed with.

Step 4: Incorporate. This is where you call for a break in the meeting. Lunchtime usually works well for this. You gather your core team (the VPs in this case) and you create a final version of your high-level objectives. You have had the morning to consider modifications based on a lot of clarifying questions and feedback. You will likely see some issues differently now. You may see some new contingencies. You may need to add or remove an objective, or to change a deadline. This is not about compromising with the managers. It is about making a well-informed decision with as much information as possible.

When lunch is over, you assemble the managers once again. You lay out the changes you’ve incorporated to the final high-level objectives. There is a part of your brain that is hoping against hope the new objectives will be met with broad smiles and nodding heads.

This, however, is not to be.

Instead, you are met with the same looks of consternation you saw when you communicated the draft objectives at the start of the day. But that’s OK. You have actually come a long way—you just can’t see it yet. The managers can see the progress that’s been made with the high-level objectives, but what they are thinking about is the impact this will have on them and their teams. Remember, people don’t inherently fear change, they fear uncertainty. Despite your best work, there is still a lot of uncertainty left in their minds.

Step 5: Involvement. This is where the magic starts. You will now ask each of the managers to answer this question: “In addition to the current work of your team, what is the one objective your team could produce that would have the greatest impact on our high-level objectives?” I recommend having them start this work at their tables by sharing and getting feedback on their team-level objectives from their table companions first.

There is only one rule during step 5: You and your top VPs can veto ideas, but you are not allowed to dictate. In our experience, 80% to 90% of your managers will give you an essential objective on their first attempt. For the 10–20% of managers who give you an objective that doesn’t allow for the success of the high-level objectives, state that simply and have them try again.

You might say, “I see why you want to go after that objective. But if that is what your group is focusing on, there is no way we will reduce returns by 10% before June 30 (the high-level objective). Can you give this another shot?” After these sessions, many chief executives have been delighted by how much managers were willing to commit to.

In my early exposure to this process, I was often shocked by the change in the mood of the room in step 5. I remember commenting to an associate about a positively engaged manager-level leader, “What happened to him? I thought that guy was ready to quit this morning. What changed?” Part of the answer is that top executives had listened (even though he had not persuaded them). A bigger part of the answer is that the CEO and senior leadership did not dictate the contribution he was going to make. They didn’t mess with his world. You could say they “pulled” instead of “pushed.”

Time and again, I have watched the most negative managers display a remarkably singular attitude at the end of the day, essentially: “Well, this is not where I would take us, but if this is where we’re going and if they’re asking for my help, I will help them out. They’re going to need it!” And if you are wondering about the following, the answer is yes – it’s just fine to let the managers be the hero of the story.


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