At my first job (marketing junior at Hewlett-Packard) Barry Hastings was my first and probably most impactful mentor (whether he knew it or not). One of many unofficial coaching moments was when Barry shared with me the key themes from an essay written by Elbert Hubbard in 1899: ‘A message to Garcia’. It turns out that this essay was more fable than a depiction of reality, which doesn’t dilute the learning I received:

When given a request from a senior person, use your initiative to:

  1. Ensure you understand what they want/mean in the first interaction (IE Don’t keep coming back for clarification).
  2. Deliver on the request without asking for turn-by-turn instructions.

I never forgot this lesson and was recently reminded of it when I was speaking with a middle manager who relayed the following scenario:

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A great example I like to reflect on is that of a compensation change:

The typical and ineffective comms cascade:

Exec to Manager: “We are changing the compensation plans this year by reducing the base salary and giving people more chances to earn from incentives based on their productivity.”

Manager to their direct: ” ‘Big exec’ has decided to change our comp plans and reduce the base. Look, I don’t like it any more than you do, but this is what they want.”

Direct to Manager: “This is completely unfair. I am going to earn less than I did last year, and comparable packages in the market are much higher. You need to have our backs on this and get the decision reversed.”

Manager to Exec: “Well, I delivered the message, and they are rejecting it. I think you have an attrition risk.”

Our EQ work at SaaSy can explain exactly why this happened. This manager had: High ’empathy’ (for the IC), low ‘assertiveness’, low ‘independence’, and low ‘self regard’.

This failed the ‘Garcia test’ on two fronts – Owning and influencing.

Here is the best process for demonstrating executive acumen

1) Hear the request and seek clarity on:

  • the specifics so that you assume nothing
  • the rationale for the change and any supporting facts

2) Either agree, or

  • state an opposing position with alternatives based on facts/data
  • request time to consider and agree on a time to revisit before executing
  • disagree, but commit to communicating it with conviction

3) Meet with the IC and communicate as follows:

Own it: When communicating change or a request, a middle manager should always own the decision by ensuring that the IC understands that the manager is on board with the decision. That sounds like, “I was speaking with [Exec] and we have decided that we need to [MAKE A CHANGE], because [EXPLAIN RATIONALE].

Influence your people: Going back to the exec and making it the exec’s problem that the IC didn’t like it is a serious dent in that manager’s brand for acumen. Managers are expected to be able to influence their team and not throw their hands up in defeat and call in the exec. If a direct report pushes back, invite their perspective and then defend yours. If they bring to light new data that you strongly believe will influence the exec (and you have changed your mind based on this), then it is appropriate to revisit it. In reality, there is rarely a situation where this happens, so don’t default to it.

In summary:

  • When give a request, be sure to gain clarity in that first interaction, including any rationale for a change.
  • Once you have agreed a course of action with your leader, commit and execute it as your own.
  • Don’t second-guess your boss by going back to revisit a decision unless critically important facts/data come to light that has changed your perspective.