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Managing Your Boss

Working with Executives

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Managing your boss is one thing; working with executives can be quite another. Because they have a tremendous amount of power, high-level executives are accustomed to doing and saying whatever they want, making them a unique breed that must be handled with care.

Although many managers like to call themselves “executives”, only a few really have extensive power, so let’s be specific about the people who belong in this category. In the business world, we’re talking about the CEO or President of a company – and if it’s a really large organization, possibly their direct reports as well. In the public sector, elected officials and high-level political appointees are really the only ones who qualify.

If you are a lowly peon who is fortunate enough – or unfortunate enough, depending on your point of view – to interact with these exalted beings, the following guidelines may help you keep your sanity. And possibly your job.

1. Don't ever tell executives that they "can't" do anything.
Nothing riles an executive more than being told they can’t do something – because you know what? They can if they want to. So saying “you can’t” will only start an argument that you will inevitably lose.

When you’re trying to keep your particular executive from doing something really stupid, try beginning your sentence with “Yes, we can do that, but let me ask you something . . .”, followed by whatever question or concern you may have. Amazingly enough, that simple acknowledgement of their power usually keeps them calm.

2. Talk fast.
Executives are busy people with tight schedules. They are also very bright people who can absorb information quickly without a lot of explanation. And even if more explanation would be helpful, you’re not going to have a chance to give it.

Start with your most important points and move quickly, but be prepared for them to pepper you with questions after about three sentences. Executives don’t want to listen to a monologue. They want to control the conversation, get the information they need, and move on to their next appointment.

3. Don't expect specific instructions.
Executive brains are usually shifting quickly from one big, important issue to the next, so their instructions are typically about half clear. If you press for specifics, they will become annoyed and decide that you are not too bright.

To successfully work with executives, you must possess a certain amount of psychic ability. You must also develop a solid relationship with the Administrative Assistant, who has already learned to read the executive’s mind. If you will be working with the executive on a regular basis, the AA is your new best friend.

4. Make it happen.
Once they have issued some vague directive, executives don’t want to hear about that issue again. In their mind, it has been dealt with – by giving it to you – and they have moved on to other matters. They will only return to it if something seems to be going wrong – and you don’t want that kind of attention. Avoid going back for more instruction or information. If you can’t figure it out yourself, use your networking contacts or pay a visit to the AA.

5. Take care of the details.
Although you received hazy instructions and are not permitted to return for clarification, you are nevertheless expected to produce a result that is perfect in every respect. Executives hate to deal with details themselves, but they expect flawless execution, assume that all unanticipated obstacles will be overcome, and have absolutely no tolerance for sloppy work. After all, they probably had to meet some pretty tough expectations themselves in order to rise to their lofty position.

6. Don't take any abuse personally.
Executives can talk to people pretty much any way they want, because, after all, who’s going to stop them? That doesn’t make it right, of course. It’s just another unfortunate fact of life. If you’re forced to deal with an executive who yells, curses, or hurls insults, keep in mind that it’s not about you. This is just a high-level person with bad manners.

Of course, if the abuse becomes intolerable, you always have the right to stand up for yourself – just recognize that you may be risking your job. When you have the opportunity to exercise power yourself, please do not emulate this childish behavior. Try to be an Adult.

7. Lose your ego.
Executives were good enough to make it to the top – or very close to the top. They are paid high salaries, given expensive cars, and surrounded with fawning underlings. Hardly anyone ever tells them if they screw up. So executive egos are usually huge, leaving no room for your own little ego problems. If you bring your ego to the party, you’ll soon find yourself in a power struggle with an executive – and guess who usually wins those?

8. Keep your self-confidence.
Ego is not helpful, but self-assurance is a must. Executives despise wimps. They stepped over plenty of those mealy-mouthed people on their way to the summit. You must therefore master the art of displaying self-confidence while respectfully acknowledging their authority. If you are too deferential or submissive, you will lose all credibility and be viewed as having limited potential.

9. Hang on to your sense of humor! You will definitely need it.
Working directly with executives can be a challenge, but they are usually bright, savvy people who can be excellent role models and mentors. So put up with their quirks and learn as much as you can. The stress level may be high, but hanging around people who possess immense power is always interesting.

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