Vic’s heart sank when he heard Tania, the VP of his division, utter the words. He thought he did everything right; made sure he had his facts right, clearly articulated the problem, and got Tania to acknowledge both the problem and his proposed solution. He thought it was a done deal. After the meeting, Vic went into Brenda’s office to vent. Brenda and Vic had been peer-mentoring each other ever since Vic joined the organization, so he felt safe confiding in her.
“I just don’t understand it!” Vic grumbled. “The problem is as clear as the nose on my face, and the solution is a no-brainer.”
“What did Tania say?” Brenda asked.
Brenda leaned back in her chair. “Not now, eh?”
“Right, not now.”
“Let me ask you something,” Brenda said.
“See behind me? Those are Tania’s priorities for this year.”
“Yeah, I know, I’ve got that on my wall too,” Vic said.
“How does what you just pitched to Tania fit into her priorities?”
Vic looked through each item on the list. “Well, it really doesn’t, but this is still a huge problem that we need to fix!”
“And did she say it wasn’t a problem?”
“And was she supportive of your solution?”
“Yeah, but. . .”
“She said, “Not now,” which means there are more important priorities she wants to address. You know as well as I do that we’ve got finite resources to address problems; she’s being choosy about which ones to solve with the resources available. She’s just being a good leader by not randomizing her organization with a problem du jour. Does that make sense?”
Vic smiled. “Yeah, I see your point.”
“Good, now how about lunch, on you?” Brenda asked.
“Sure, meet you by the elevators in ten?”
“Yup, but if I’m paying we’re having sushi,” Vic smiled, knowing Brenda wasn’t a fan of raw fish.
“Cooked crab rolls for me, slimy stuff for you.”
Tollgate 4: I see how this aligns with my priorities
Making it this far through the tollgates means the exec acknowledges there’s a problem and understands your course of action. Now it’s about how the course of action you want to take aligns with other top-of-mind problems the exec is facing. Execs live in a world of competing priorities, all vying for mindshare, people, and money. Your job here is to ensure you understand the exec’s priorities and anticipate how your course of action aligns with the priorities. Many execs clearly document their priorities and make it easy for the organization to understand what they want done. Some, though, may have other items that aren’t on a published list. This could be due to recent events causing priorities to change or it could just be a lazy exec not taking the time to communicate those things that are top-of-mind for him or her. Whatever the scenario, your job is to understand what the exec’s priorities are and clearly articulate how your course of action aligns.
This is where the concept of absolute versus relative comes into play; something that many less-seasoned professionals have difficulty understanding. On an absolute basis, your course of action could be the right thing to do, but on a relative basis there could be higher competing priorities that need to be addressed before your course of action can be undertaken. This is where an answer like, “Great idea, just not now” can be given. This doesn’t mean your course of action is a bad idea, that you did something wrong, or that the exec is an idiot for not jumping on your course of action; it just means that there are bigger fish to fry. Embrace it as a fact of your professional life.
You may have a great idea that addresses some business problem or seizes an opportunity. It’s not just a matter of convincing an exec of your solution; it’s also understanding how your idea aligns to the priorities the exec has top-of-mind. Take time to understand the priorities and be prepared to articulate how your solution addresses what your exec cares about.
We’ve gone through four tollgates thus far:
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