Boss Talks Over You? Ask Madeleine

 

Dear Madeleine,

I just read your blog Boss Keeps Interrupting You? Ask Madeleine. Excellent points there, particularly the pre-meeting meeting. My problem is a boss who talks over me chronically.

I am the EVP of Marketing. My CEO believes he has a high and authoritative understanding of every marketing topic. My experience is that you can fake marketing until it comes to results. Although I have a good rapport and mutual respect with my colleagues, I’m often left flustered in a group meeting.

Unfortunately, results get compromised as the CEO changes his mind on campaigns or events at the worst possible time despite briefings, confirmations, and published timelines. I am not a good advocate for myself in this situation, as I know challenging or correcting the CEO would be a career limiting activity.

I could use an idea or two.

CEO Whiplash

___________________________________________________________________________

Dear CEO Whiplash,

Thanks for the kind words. I love it when past articles prompt interesting questions!

There are two separate issues here. One is your CEO wreaking havoc. The other is your self-assessment that you get flustered and that you are not a good advocate for yourself.

Let’s start with your CEO who is frustrating you. CEOs usually fit one of two personality profiles:

  1. The very cerebral, analytical, organized thinker who probably is a lot smarter than anyone else in the room (and—weirdly—usually taller). This CEO is seeking sound logical thinking and accuracy, and Excel is their first native language.

OR

  • The visionary, super creative entrepreneur who moves way faster than everyone else and changes the plan with no thought as to how it will affect the troops. This CEO thinks in pictures and stories and gets really excited by new ideas.

These two profiles present very different challenges. It sounds like you would do very well with Profile #1, but your CEO is #2. So how do you successfully keep up and manage the personality profile I like to think of as “Taz”? (Based on the cartoon character Tasmanian Devil, this happens to be a profile I’ve become extremely familiar with.)

The thing to understand about folks with this profile is that they tend to think out loud, which can cause real confusion.

A client of mine recently was appalled that one of his direct reports spent an entire weekend creating a full plan to deliver on an idea that had been floated in a Friday meeting. My client didn’t even think it was a good idea and forgot all about it, but he felt terrible that it ruined someone’s weekend. After some thought, he went back to his team and said, “In my mind, there are three kinds of idea conversations: the speculation conversation, the evaluation conversation, and the planning conversation. All of these conversations need to happen before anybody takes dedicated action—especially time-consuming action.”

I suspect your CEO has the same thing going on, but doesn’t have the self-awareness to realize it. So when he is throwing out ideas and speculating on potentially changing your carefully crafted plans, he could very well be simply brainstorming. Speculating. You are right that correcting or challenging your CEO, especially in front of others, would not be good for you. But there is a big difference between a confrontation in the moment and acting on everything that comes out of your CEO’s mouth. Right now those are the two options you have created for yourself. I recommend you expand your options because both of those are bad for you. You need alternatives that not only ensure your CEO feels heard and validated, but also keep you from being overwhelmed with change orders that aren’t going to produce the desired results.

From lose/lose to win/win.

What this means for you is that you have to listen carefully to your CEO, reflect back all of his ideas (no matter how silly or absurd), and make sure he feels fully heard. How to do this? Use classic negotiating techniques: mirror back everything your CEO says, and label.

A conversation from the past might have gone something like this:

CEO: “Hey, that email campaign should include the new product idea we are considering.”

You: “Uhhhhh.” (You’re thinking it’s a terrible idea.)

CEO: “You know, so we can share info on the one we are launching, but also seed the newest ideas and maybe get feedback.”

You: “Well …” (You’re thinking, oh god, that will never work.)

CEO: “Yeah, don’t you think we could share news on the new stuff but also be doing market research?”

You: “Actually, it doesn’t really work well to do that.”

CEO (cutting you off): “I think we should totally try it.”

Chris Voss, author of Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As if Your Life Depends on It accurately says that people hear your inner voice as well as they hear your outer voice. So if you are thinking, “OMG this guy is a complete moron,” your CEO will hear it and then dig his heels in to drive his point home. So keep that inner voice in its corner, keep the judgment off your face, and try mirroring.

A future conversation could go something like this:

CEO: “Hey, that email campaign should include the new product idea we are considering.”

You: “Include the new product?” (Taking notes.)

CEO: “You know, so we can share info on the one we are launching, but also seed the newest ideas and maybe get feedback.”

You: “Get feedback.” (Nodding yes.)

CEO: “Yeah, don’t you think we could share news on the new stuff but also be doing market research?”

You: “Market research.” (Looking intrigued.)

CEO: “Actually, you already have a whole market research project going on, don’t you? That’s probably a bad idea.”

When you use mirroring and keep your curious/open-minded hat on, chances are that your CEO will either come to the reasonable conclusion himself or forget all about it. So how do you keep your curious hat on, you ask? Remember that your CEO is, in fact, the CEO—so he probably isn’t a complete idiot. He may even throw out a truly innovative idea occasionally. So keep your ears open for it!

This will keep you from having to worry about arguing, correcting, or advocating for your own ideas in the moment, which is fiendishly difficult for most of us. Even if that doesn’t quite work out, it will be worth developing the skill.

Mirroring is the next step.

You: “It sounds like you feel strongly that we should alter the email campaign for the release to do double duty, is that right?”

CEO: “Yeah, what do you think of that?”

You: “I hadn’t considered it. There might be a good idea there. Let me take the idea and flesh it out to see how it could work, okay?”

The beauty of this approach is that you aren’t caving in immediately to his demands—you are saying “maybe.” “No” feels like a loss, while “maybe” feels like possibility. Nobody likes “no.” Shifting to “maybe,” “let me think about it,” “wow, good thinking, let me consider that,” or “let me research that and get back to you” is an excellent move for people who are struggling to maintain boundaries.

Then, jot down a quick outline of the fleshed-out idea with all the reasons it is a bad idea (research, experiences you have had) and have it in your back pocket for the moment your CEO asks about it. Be ready with your excellent arguments that show “that idea won’t get us the results we want, and here’s why.” You probably won’t ever need this because I am willing to bet money on his forgetting about it immediately.

If push comes to shove with your CEO, you can take better care of yourself by being ready to ask “What do you really want me to do with this idea? Do you want me to create a plan to show you, or is this an idea you simply want me to consider carefully?” The key to managing conversations with people who cut you off and never let you talk is to keep your contributions either short or in the form of a question.

As you say, the key is your results. If you nod your head yes, listen carefully, and change absolutely nothing about what you do after the meeting or how you are delivering, there is a very good chance that all will be well. And you’ll have some new skills you can use with a cranky neighbor, a teenager, or the next customer service representative you have to wrestle with.

Let me know how it goes.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

 

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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