Before You Say Yes: Negotiating with a Visionary Executive

If you’re lucky enough to work for a visionary executive – one with a clear sense of direction that inspires bold ideas – you’re used to being asked to implement ambitious new initiatives on tight timelines. If we admire or fear these charismatic leaders, we’re inclined to say a quick and hearty yes when they ask us to take on heroic tasks. Only later, when we realize the impossibility of what we’ve signed up for, do we wish we’d asked more questions. Discouraged, we may start ignoring their project, hoping our executive will forget. More likely, they’ll call a few months later, angry that they’ve seen no progress.

What’s more, it’s disrespectful to commit our teams with no due diligence. We know their capacity and mustn’t overload them when they’re already hard at work on other tasks that support corporate strategy (and likely our executive’s prior inspirations).

Your team wants to add value, and they count on you to direct them to their highest and best use, even as that changes in response to shifts in the external environment and your leaders’ evolving understanding of the best ways to compete. Your executive, likewise, needs to be able to count on your commitments. That means you need to learn (and share) enough in these conversations to get to the yes that’s best for your executive, your team and the company.

Here’s a collaborative and thoughtful way to engage when a visionary executive asks you to make something happen.

  • Understand the vision. Assume your executive’s vision is reliable. What is he seeing? What is she excited about? Ask questions with the intention of getting a better look inside their head.

Tell me more about what you’re imagining.
What will this enable us to do?
How does this help us compete?
How big a deal is this for us?

  • Learn about the urgency. Why is your executive talking about this idea now? Why is this the right time? Which projects underway might this new one be replacing?

How quickly do you imagine this happening?
What’s driving this initiative?
How urgent is this?
What’s at stake for us?

  • Share the enthusiasm. As you get a clearer picture of your executive’s vision and sense of urgency, express genuine excitement about whatever you find genuinely exciting. Don’t worry yet about practical questions of how to get things done. You’ll be headed there shortly. Affirming the good your executive is trying to do sets up a fruitful negotiation about what happens next.

This would put us way ahead of the competition.
I love how this makes great use of all the competencies we’ve been building.
Our customers would love this.

Having understood and joined the vision, you’re ready to speak for front-line reality. You usually know your team’s capacity better than senior leaders do, and they count on you to manage it wisely. As you pivot to this part of the conversation, you might find it helpful to say something like

Let me get with the team and figure out how quickly we can make something happen.

This statement is a yes, but it’s a smart yes. It’s an agreement to take seriously the executive’s vision and desire to make it happen. It’s also a commitment to accept the executive’s urgency and move quickly. It is not, however, a commitment of your team to deliver the full vision.

Now you’re going to ask, on your team’s behalf, all the questions they’ll be asking you when you describe the executive vision and ask them to work on it.

  • Which aspects of this project should we prioritize?

If we take on this project on with the time the team has available, which pieces should we prioritize?
If we can do some of this right away, what would you like to see first?

Here you’re offering to devote available bandwidth to the project and asking your executive to prioritize deliverables. This question will often help surface their real driver. Yes, they may see exciting promise in a new communications platform, but you may discover the pressing concern is getting the board online for a monthly meeting. If they insist on your taking on the entire project they’ve described, move to the next question:

  • What could we deprioritize?

To get your team time for this project, you’ll have to put something off. Invite your executive to make that call. Negotiate the bandwidth needed to deliver what they’re telling you is the new priority. Of course, you have to defend other executives’ projects! Don’t let your visionary exec bump what you’ve committed to their peer.

If your executive won’t let you deprioritize anything, ask:

  • Where can we get the extra resources we’ll need?

Let your executive know what it would take for you to add another project to your roadmap. If they won’t authorize additional resources, you’ll need to be courageously clear.

  • This will put other commitments at risk.

I don’t see how we’ll do it, but if you insist, we’ll try.
Here’s what I expect we’ll be up against.
Here’s how I plan to deprioritize if we have to…

Before you say yes, you have to make sure you highlight the risks involved. If your executive cannot accept additional risks on projects already underway, then you’ll go back to suggesting ways to scope down the initial project, deprioritize projects or get extra resources. Unless you’ve missed something your executive is seeing, these are your only options.

These conversations can feel tough and courageous in the moment. You must be centered and generous. This is not a battle of wills. You are on your executive’s side. You support the vision and want to help build it. You’re also protecting work in progress, much of which is helping realize your executive’s other good ideas. If you graciously represent the real constraints of limited resources, you’ll be helping put solid ground under your executive’s vision.