— May 14, 2018
Early in my career, a senior leader in my firm was a master of “what-if,” “blue-sky” thinking. He would come up with an idea, assign it to whichever staffer happened to be around at the moment, and then, more likely than not, forget about it.
Most of the employees who had experience with this leader’s wild goose chases would wait until he asked for something a second time before investing five minutes or a lick of work. All too often, he’d never ask again, or if you brought him your work, he’d seem confused, or disinterested, and wave it away.
I started waiting for that second request too, until one day when we were in the middle of a meeting with a bunch of senior leaders, an outside consultant, and a supplier about a completely unrelated topic — and I was found out.
Something made him think of one of those “projects” he had assigned to me, and he asked me why he hadn’t received my report. When I told him truthfully that I hadn’t started on it yet, he broke into a string of guilt-laced recriminations. “You knew I wanted that! You knew it was important because…”
Learn Your Lesson
I learned two things from that experience. One, I never wanted to do to anyone else what he had done to me. So ever since then, I’ve tried to be explicit about when I want something, and to create lists or calendar items (or both) to ensure that I follow up at the appropriate interval. And if I’ve forgotten to follow up, and the other party isn’t on top of things, I apologize for not being clearer, and try to establish timing and deliverables at that point.
And two, I knew I never, ever wanted to be put in that position again. So I developed a self-protective approach that felt businesslike and not excessive.
If you tend to find yourself in a similar spot with leaders who have too many ideas or who don’t care at all until they suddenly care very, very much, then my technique may also work for you.
Reports as Retorts
In the case of my old boss, the best defense was a small and reasonable offense. So whenever he threw out ideas and inspirations — almost as free-associations — and assigned them to me, I would do a minimal amount of thinking or research about them. I’d come up with a few observations or rudimentary alternatives as well as some concrete questions for him, and would write the whole thing up — never more than a page or a page-and-a-half — with an emphasis on what I needed from him before I could continue with the next step.
The fact that I had prepared a brief report on each new idea benefited both me and my boss. Any time he asked what I had done about one of his fancies, I was covered. And because I always did some real exploratory work, he often had enough data to decide if there was actually enough merit to pursue the idea any further.
With a leader who’s somewhat less wild-eyed or more of a stickler than my old boss, you might want to be a little more assiduous and send an additional follow-up note a few days later, asking, “Did you want to touch base on this next week?” Always give the leader the option, without obligation — but with the email trail that shows you’ve been in touch and on the case.
Did you have any embarrassing or frightening experiences early in your career that prepared you to be more successful later on? How did you learn when to step up, rather than to avoid an issue?