Why You Can’t Tolerate Ambush Communications

Many times I’ve been with CEOs when they’ve been ‘ambushed’ by someone needing a decision. It can happen in person, in voice mails, emails and texts. It happened to me, typically around 5:30 pm as I was thinking about packing it up for the day. Notably, most of those same CEOs were highly effective decision makers and yet, many of them got a bad rap by some on their leadership teams for seemingly being indecisive. How could that be?

Think of your own environment…is it that uncommon that senior executives present you with well-intended requests, often ‘on the fly,’ supported more by qualitative than by quantitative arguments.  ‘We’ve got a real shot at cracking this national account if we can have a (e.g. $2.5 million) specialized machine on the floor by September.’ Some of us might say ‘get the order and I’ll authorize the machine,’ others could say ‘show me the ROI’ but doubtful any of us would say ‘consider it done.’ And similar; ‘our volume has gone through the roof, are you OK with me adding another four people?’

We’re busy; patterns develop and rather than engaging in a spontaneous Q&A to find out more, (with us being the ‘Q,)’ or to repeatedly push back for more information that doesn’t come, it can become easier to say ‘let me think about it, (or) I’ll get back to you.’ Unfortunately, when we do either, the sequel is likely to be ‘have you had a chance to think about it yet?’ thus originating the rap for us being indecisive.

When such frustrations are vented to me, I am not at a loss for words in sharing my own guidelines. I’m preaching to the choir, I know, but just in case…here are my rules of engagement for those who tax your patience the most:

• Timing is everything! A ‘fly by’ request or one tucked in at the end of a conversation or the end of a day will not be well received.  Schedule a meeting and send me any background information beforehand.  By doing so our time together will be spent evaluating rather than explaining.

• When asking for guidance present two or three solutions noting the one you would pick if it was yours and yours alone to make. It doesn’t have to be the one I might pick but it does have to demonstrate that you have thought through an issue.

• Quantify why you want to do something, not just what you want to do. Asking for more resources without a fact based rationale will lead us to a discussion of opinions and likely either no response or a definitive ‘no.’

• If the decision you require involves money, and many do, think of it as coming out of your own pocket. If you were a shareholder would you view your request differently?  More to the point, why seek support or approval for something you wouldn’t do on your own?

• If the decision doesn’t go your way, don’t ask for reconsideration unless you’re better prepared and/or circumstances have changed substantially. This isn’t about who is the better debater.

• If you get the decision you hoped for, don’t keep ‘selling;’ you got the order and we’ve both got things to do.

Ambush communications: If initially tolerated, they can become patterns of behavior.  Unchecked, they can wear you down, change your mood and worse, affect your value of the messenger. My advice…invest the time to reconfirm expectations with those who need it; you’ll both be better for it!

Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.