Many of us have been in situations where we’re managing a project or advancing a new initiative at work and the leaders supervising the work get lost in unnecessary details. How do you manage up so the project doesn’t lose momentum? Using a real-life scenario of how a director at a tech company built a propensity model to streamline sales and presented it to his leaders as well as the salespeople using it, the authors present three strategies to get leaders out of the weeds on a project: 1) Work with your “users,” 2) sell the big picture, and 3) create self-service content.
Amidst high growth, the salespeople at a global technology company were confused about which accounts and opportunities to focus on. Mark, a rising director on the go-to-market team, was leading a project to build a propensity model to solve this problem. The model took in numerous data points across disparate systems to give salespeople directional leads. Leaders were excited about the model and the problem it would solve, but they often ended up getting stuck in the details during presentations. Mark was beginning to get frustrated. How can he get his leaders out of the weeds so he can keep advancing this important work?
Individuals at all levels in organizations will encounter situations where leaders lose the big picture. We have encountered it across our careers, from starting out when we worked with our bosses on small projects and later, when we presented to boards on transformational programs. While the particular questions in those situations were different, the underlying challenge remained the same. Based on over 30 years of influencing leadership decisions, we recommend three steps that individuals can take to reset the conversation with leaders. We’ll demonstrate these steps with a real-life example of how Mark, a rising director in a $10 billion global technology company, successfully advanced his work amidst a cascade of detailed questions.
When talking with salespeople, Mark kept hearing the same thing: “I don’t know where to focus.” Most salespeople had dozens of accounts, and the company sold a range of products with new releases coming out monthly, meaning some felt overwhelmed by what they had to sell. As a result, the company’s sales pipeline was not developing in line with expectations, and the leadership was beginning to get nervous.
Mark had been at the company for over a year and had just been promoted. He had the internal support and desire to take on a big problem, and he excitedly thought this was it. Working with a data scientist, Mark overcame significant technical challenges, quickly building a dashboard that clearly showed salespeople where the opportunities were in their territories. Salespeople were enthusiastic when the dashboard was released on a small scale, and leaders wanted to hear more. The meetings quickly became a drag though, as many leaders focused on adoption data (one of the data types used in the model) and systems issues, as the company had numerous reporting tools. Their concerns were valid, but Mark didn’t believe that necessitated stopping the work. Disappointed with how the situation was unfolding, he resolved to change tactics.
After a wave of internal meetings with leaders, Mark adopted a three-pronged approach. We’ve found that these tactics work in many circumstances when leaders get stuck.
1. Work with your “users.”
Individuals must think of themselves as product managers, treat their work as a “product,” and move with their users. The leaders who get stuck in the details are rarely the ultimate users of the work. Individuals should continue to work with users, taking in requirements, making updates, and demonstrating value. The lack of full leadership buy-in should not be an impediment. Rather, leaders will be more supportive when there is strong enthusiasm from the actual users.
In Mark’s case, though he was presenting to leadership, the users of his work were in sales. Mark decided to keep working with salespeople to understand what they liked about the dashboard and what should be improved, just as if he was a product manager. He kept developing the tool based on their feedback. In addition, when he gave enablement trainings to sales or was in meetings with leaders, he had salespeople present with him. This positive feedback demonstrated to leaders the value of the project and led to them spending more time considering how to scale the work and less time questioning the data nuances.
2. Sell the big picture.
When presenting, project leaders sometimes resort to talking about the work in a project management context where they’ll assume buy-in to the vision and then jump into execution aspects, sharing GANNT charts and discussing roles and responsibilities. This is a mistake. Individuals should instead paint a picture of how the work will solve a pressing problem by discussing the vision and use cases, and tying the work to leadership’s priorities.
After some initial discussions with leaders, Mark created a separate presentation for them. The presentation focused on how the tool would make salespeople’s’ lives easier, which would improve pipeline, increase employee satisfaction, and reduce turnover, a priority for leadership. Mark was still prepared to talk about release schedules and workstream owners, but he never led with those points. The meetings began to go smoother, and the executives were relieved to have an initiative that could help stem the flood of employee departures.
3. Create self-service content.
Project managers should create self-service content that addresses technical questions. If two or more leaders ask the same question, it is a good indication it will come up again. Individuals should prepare simple FAQs, descriptions, or video tutorials that address these issues, and they should publish them in an accessible forum. This will reduce the time they spend responding to the same questions.
The propensity model included data on product adoption, as it was a company priority to monitor client adoption of newer products. Mark realized that leaders were getting stuck on how the adoption data was calculated. He worked with the data scientist and product team to create a page on definitions and another on commonly asked questions about the data, and then he posted them on an internal company site. For more technical audiences, he sent out the self-service content in advance of presentations. Questions from leadership about adoption slowed to a trickle, and Mark was better able to focus the meetings on key items.
Of course, challenges will arise no matter what. Leadership will likely want to make changes to the work or they will want to tie it to other related projects that are also underway. That is just part of working on an important initiative. In Mark’s case, leaders originally wanted Mark to align with other data initiatives that were internal. These initiatives were slow-moving though, and aligning fully with them would have jeopardized his project’s ability to quickly deliver value. As Mark successfully used the three tactics, leadership got on board, and leaders began to tell other project managers to follow his work — not the other way around.
The benefits to overcoming these challenges are significant. The company is better off when this kind of work is implemented, and the team that completes the work will reap the benefits. More importantly though, the individuals on the project will have improved their skills, having overcome internal hurdles and won over leaders in the process. In this case study, change took time. But weeks after deploying these tactics, Mark realized that the tone of these leadership meetings had gradually transitioned from skepticism to excitement. His project’s potential was still not fully realized, but he knew that he had developed a new skillset and that the company’s leaders were on his side.
Rekindling a Sense of Community at Work
For decades, we’ve been living lonelier, more isolated lives. As our social connectedness has decreased, so has our happiness and mental health. And with more aspects of our lives becoming digital, it has reduced our opportunities for everyday social interaction. The nature of our work, in particular, has shifted.
In 2014, Christine and Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz partnered to learn more about what stands in the way of being more productive and satisfied at work. One of the more surprising findings was that 65% of people didn’t feel any sense of community at work.
That seemed costly (and sad!), motivating Christine to write Mastering Community, since lonelier workers report lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Lonelier employees also tend to perform worse.
During the pandemic, many of us became even more isolated. Community, which we define as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare, has proven challenging to cultivate, especially for those working virtually. To learn more, we conducted a survey with the Conference for Women in which we asked nearly 1,500 participants about their sense of community at work before and since the pandemic and found it has declined 37%. When people had a sense of community at work, we found that they were 58% more likely to thrive at work, 55% more engaged, and 66% more likely to stay with their organization. They experienced significantly less stress and were far more likely to thrive outside of work, too.
People can create community in many ways, and preferences may differ depending on their backgrounds and interests. Here are several ways companies have successfully built a sense of community at work that leaders can consider emulating at their own organizations.
Create mutual learning opportunities.
After creating an internal university for training years ago, Motley Fool, the stock advisor company, realized that the teachers got even more out of it than the students. The feedback led to a vibrant coaching program in which about 10% of employees act as a coach to other employees. For many, being a coach is a favorite part of their job. Chief People Officer Lee Burbage said, “When you think of progress and growth in a career, your mind tends to stay boxed into ‘What is my current role? What am I doing?’…we really try to encourage side projects…taking on a teaching role, taking on a coaching role, being a leader in one of our ERGs, that sort of thing.”
Burbage went on to describe how the company helped foster a sense of community by enabling employees to learn from one another in a less formal way:
We’ve had incredible fun and incredible effectiveness going out to [employees] and saying, “Hey, is anybody really good at something and would be interested in teaching others?” All it takes is for them to set up a Zoom call. We’ve had everything from DJ class to butchering class. How to make drinks, how to sew. Tapping into your employees and skills they may already have that they’d be excited to teach others, especially in the virtual world, that makes for a great class and creates an opportunity again for them to progress and grow and meet new people.
Tap into the power of nostalgia.
Research suggests that shared memories from past positive events and accomplishments, such as birthday dinners, anniversaries, retreats, or weekend trips, endure and can help sustain morale. Nostalgia can help counteract anxiety and loneliness, encourage people to act more generously toward one another, and increase resilience. Research has also shown that when people engage in nostalgia for a few minutes before the start of their workday, they’re better at coping with work stresses.
Come up with ways to bring employees together for memorable events outside of work. Christine recently spoke at the law firm Jones Walker’s anniversary leadership celebration offsite. After meetings, we headed to the Washington Nationals ballpark, where we toured the field, feasted on ballpark favorites, and had the opportunity to take batting practice.
Eat or cook together.
In 2015, Jeremy Andrus, who took over Traeger Grills as CEO in 2014, decided to reboot a toxic culture and moved the corporate headquarters to Utah. There, Andrus worked to create a positive physical environment for his employees. As part of that, employees cooked breakfast together every Monday morning and lunch Tuesday through Friday. As he put it, “Preparing food for and with colleagues is a way of showing we care about one another.” According to pulse surveys in 2020, Traeger Grills employees rated the culture a nine out of 10 on average, with 91% reporting a feeling of connection to the company’s vision, mission, and values.
Cooking and eating together isn’t just a community builder. Researchers conducted interviews at 13 firehouses, then followed up by surveying 395 supervisors. They found that eating together had a positive effect on job performance. The benefits were likely reinforced by the cooperative behaviors underlying the firefighters’ meal practices: collecting money, shopping, menu planning, cooking, and cleaning. Taken together, all these shared activities resulted in stronger job performance.
Find ways to bring employees together over a meal. For example, invite the team to a lunch of takeout food in a conference room, or organize a walk to a nearby restaurant for a brainstorming session or a chance to socialize. You could also ask team members to cook an elaborate meal together at an offsite as a means of figuring out how to work collaboratively on something outside of their usual range.
Plug into your local community.
Kim Malek, the cofounder of ice cream company Salt & Straw, forges a sense of meaning and connectedness among employees, customers, and beyond to the larger communities in which her shops are located. From the beginning, Kim and her cousin and cofounder, Tyler Malek, “turned to their community, asking friends — chefs, chocolatiers, brewers, and farmers — for advice, finding inspiration everywhere they looked.”
Kim and Tyler worked with the Oregon Innovation Center, a partnership between Oregon State University and the Department of Agriculture, to help companies support the local food industry and farmers. Kim Malek told Christine that every single ice cream flavor on their menu “had a person behind it that we worked with and whose story we could tell. So that feeling of community came through in the actual ice cream you were eating.”
On the people side, Salt & Straw partners with local community groups Emerging Leaders, an organization that places BIPOC students into paid internships, and The Women’s Justice Project (WJP), a program in Oregon that helps formerly incarcerated women rejoin their communities. They also work with DPI Staffing to create job opportunities for people with barriers like disabilities and criminal records, and have hired 10 people as part of that program.
In partnership with local schools, Salt & Straw holds an annual “student inventors series” where children are invited to invent a new flavor of ice cream. The winner not only has their ice cream produced, but they read it to their school at an assembly, and the entire school gets free ice cream. This past year, Salt & Straw held a “rad readers” series and invited kids to submit their wildest stories attached to a proposed ice cream flavor. Salt & Straw looks for ways like this to embed themselves in and engage with the community to help people thrive. It creates meaning for their own community while also lifting up others.
Create virtual shared experiences.
Develop ways for your people to connect through shared experiences, even if they’re working virtually. Sanjay Amin, head of YouTube Music + Premium Subscription Partnerships at YouTube, will share personal stories, suggest the team listen to the same album, or try one recipe together. It varies and is voluntary. He told Christine he tries to set the tone by being “an open book” and showing his human side through vulnerability. Amin has also sent his team members a “deep question card” the day before a team meeting. It’s completely optional but allows people to speak up and share their thoughts, experiences, and feelings in response to a deep question — for example:
- If you could give everyone the same superpower, which superpower would you choose?
- What life lesson do you wish everyone was taught in school?
He told Christine, “Fun, playful questions like these give us each a chance to go deep quickly and understand how we uniquely view the world” and that people recognized a shared humanity and bonding.
EXOS, a coaching company, has a new program, the Game Changer, that’s a six-week experience designed to get people to rethink what it means to sustain performance and career success in the long run. Vice President Ryan Kaps told Christine, “Work is never going back to the way it was. We saw an opportunity to help people not only survive, but thrive.”
In the Game Changer, members are guided by an EXOS performance coach and industry experts to address barriers that may be holding them back from reaching their highest potential at work or in life. Members learn science-backed strategies that deepen their curiosity, awaken their creativity, and help sustain energy and focus. The program structure combines weekly individual self-led challenges and live virtual team-based huddles and accountability, which provide community and support. People who’ve completed the Game Changer call it “transformative,” with 70% of participants saying they’re less stressed and 91% reporting that it “reignited their passion and purpose.”
Make rest and renewal a team effort.
Burnout is rampant and has surged during the pandemic. In our recent survey, we found that only 10% of respondents take a break daily, 50% take breaks just once or twice a week, and 22% report never taking breaks. Distancing from technology is particularly challenging, with a mere 8% of respondents reporting that they unplug from all technology daily. Consider what you can do to focus on recovery, together.
Tony Schwartz told Christine about the work his group did with a team from accounting firm Ernst and Young. In 2018, this team had been working on a particularly challenging project during the busy season, the result being that the team members became so exhausted and demoralized that a majority of them left the company afterward.
To try to change this, the 40-person EY team worked with the Energy Project to develop a collective “Resilience Boot Camp” in 2019 focused on teaching people to take more breaks and get better rest in order to manage their physical, emotional, and mental energy during especially intense periods. As a follow up, every other week for the 14 weeks of the busy season, the EY employees attended one-hour group coaching sessions during which team members discussed setbacks and challenges and supported one another in trying to embrace new recovery routines. Each participant was paired with another teammate to provide additional personal support and accountability.
Thanks to the significant shifts in behavior, accountants completed their work in fewer hours and agreed to take off one weekend day each week during this intense period. “Employees were able to drop 12 to 20 hours per week based on these changes, while accomplishing the same amount of work,” Schwartz told Christine.
By the end of the 2019 busy season, team members felt dramatically better than at the end of 2018’s. And five months after the busy season, when accounting teams typically lost people to exhaustion and burnout, this EY team’s retention stood at 97.5%. Schwartz told Christine that his main takeaway from that experience was “the power of community.”
. . .
Community can be a survival tool — a way for people to get through challenging things together — and helps move people from surviving to thriving. As we found, it also makes people much more likely to stay with your organization. What can you do to help build a sense of community?
How to Handle Office Gossip … When It’s About You
Gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes. When it’s used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts, it can incite workplace drama. So what should you do if you find out a colleague has been gossiping about you? First, let the messenger of the gossip know you’ll be discussing it with the gossiping colleague. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace. Second, when you confront the person gossiping, focus first on the content of their gossip, rather than their method. If there’s merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback, and you also demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns. Finally, ask them for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself.
Imagine a colleague of yours, “Beth,” approaches you one day and tells you that “Gareth,” a relatively new member of your team, made disparaging comments about you to her — referring to you as a “lightweight who wouldn’t be in the job if not for getting hired before the company could attract those with credentials.”
Beth reports this in hushed tones, then adds, “He can’t know where you heard it, okay?” What should you do next?
As I’ve written about before, gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes:
- It can be a source of information for those who mistrust formal channels.
- It can serve as an emotional release for anger or frustration.
- It can be used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts
It’s this latter form that incites a lot of workplace drama. This kind of gossip is communication minus responsibility. It is a collusive counterfeit to problem solving. In the example above, someone is telling you that you’ve been gossiped about — and they’re using gossip as the vehicle to do so. They’re passing along information on condition of anonymity.
The most crucial moment in addressing gossip like this is not after you hear it, but when you hear it. In an ideal world, Beth would have informed Gareth in the moment that she would need to share the information with you, unless he was willing to do so himself. But given that didn’t happen, you as the subject must decide whether you will continue the gossip or invite responsible communication.
When you tacitly or explicitly agree to engage in gossip so you can get access to gossip about you, you become part of the problem. You also prevent yourself from taking the only kind of action that could lead to resolution: a candid and respectful dialogue that produces mutual understanding. The way you handle this moment — the instant you’re issued an invitation to participate in gossip — becomes crucial. Here are three things to do when someone else is gossiping about you.
Don’t listen if you can’t act.
I adopted an ethic years ago that I always use to set a boundary with those who want to pass along information about another person. When I can see the conversation is headed in the direction of gossip, I politely stop the person and let them know that I’ll likely act on the information I’m given. This helps them understand that speaking implies responsibility and gives them an “out” to decide to keep the information to themselves.
In the situation above, Beth has already shared critical information. At this point, you could say, “Thanks for letting me know Gareth has concerns about me. I’ll be discussing that with him. I don’t feel a need to share your name, but he might guess you shared it.” If that makes her nervous, you should still hold your boundary. You might say, for example, “I’m going to address this with Gareth one way or another. If you want a day or so to let him know you shared it with me, you’re welcome to take that time.” If she chooses not to do so, you’re free to move forward.
Of course, the risk in this approach is that people will think twice before sharing gossip with you. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace.
Address the right issue first.
Next is the conversation with Gareth. A gossip episode like this involves two conversations: one about process and one about content.
Most people’s first instinct is to address the process problem — i.e., the fact that Gareth is talking negatively behind your back. You assume the content of the gossip in meritless and move to immediately confront what bothers you most: the inappropriate way he’s peddling his “fabrications.” A better way to proceed is to focus first on the content issue — Gareth’s apparent concerns about your competence — and not the “talking behind my back” issue.
Be humble. Don’t frame the conversation (even implicitly) as “Shame on you for talking behind my back,” but rather as “If I have failed you in some way, I really want to understand it. Or if my skills are coming up short, I need that feedback.” This approach helps in a number of ways. First, if there is merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback. Second, you transcend tit-for-tat reactions in a way that might prevent this from escalating into future personal conflict. And third, you demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns.
Don’t be deterred if the person starts by claiming misunderstanding or minimizing their statements. Reiterate your desire for feedback and urge them to be forthcoming about any concerns.
Discuss the process problem.
Only after you’ve explored the other person’s concerns can you productively hold them accountable for the indirect way their feedback came to you. Ask for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself. If you’ve humbly solicited feedback in the previous step, you’ll have the moral authority and safety needed to hold them accountable for their bad behavior.
There is no guarantee that approaching gossip in this way will eliminate it. But it does guarantee that you become part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem.
In Uncertain Times, the Best Strategy Is Adaptability
Companies everywhere labor under the illusion that the key to a great strategy is a good handle on the future. But meteorologist Edward Lorenz demonstrated that small differences can have massive consequences or none at all, which means that unless you have a perfect, complete picture of existing conditions, forecasting the future with any precision is impossible. Instead, advises Bain’s Michael Mankins, companies should focus on making themselves better able to cope with unexpected changes. For strategy, that involves instilling an adaptive mindset among managers, building in flexibility into operations, creating dynamic plans.
Senior executives often lament, “If we only had better forecasts, we could devise better plans.” They pressure their teams to come up with more accurate projections for how their markets will evolve, competitors will respond, and consumers will react — thinking that forecast precision is the key to defining winning strategies.
But attempting to develop precise forecasts is a fool’s errand. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz proved this nearly 60 years ago when he popularized “the butterfly effect.” He suggested: “A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.” While this statement is often interpreted as meaning “small things can have big impacts,” Lorenz’s insight was actually far more profound: In complex systems, small changes in one variable may have no effect or massive ones, and it is virtually impossible to predict which will turn out to be the case.
Before Lorenz’s work, forecasters assumed that an approximate specification of initial conditions would yield an approximate prediction of future outcomes. Lorenz’s modelling proved that assumption to be entirely false. He found that without a perfect delineation of initial conditions, predictions are useless.
Today, the butterfly effect is almost universal. Our world is more complex and interconnected than ever before. Increasing globalization, advances in telecommunications technology, shifts in consumer preferences, geopolitical instability, and countless other factors have made the future largely unpredictable. Capturing all these relationships in a reliable forecast is impracticable.
So, what should executives do? In Bain’s work with clients, we advise executives operating under extreme uncertainty to make sure that their strategy-making is characterized by a willingness to adapt, inbuilt flexibility, and dynamic planning.
Willingness to Adapt
Stephen Hawking is famously credited with saying: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” If it is impossible to predict what is around the corner, then the secret to success is adapting quickly to what appears.
The Covid-19 pandemic serves as testimony to the importance of adaptability. In early 2020, almost no company’s strategic plan forecast the impact that the global pandemic would have on business. The most successful companies (e.g., Zoom, Amazon, GrubHub, Disney) quickly adapted to the impact that work-from-home orders and other restrictions placed on workers and consumers. Some expanded capacity in response to the sudden surge in demand; others altered their delivery model to serve customers in new and different ways.
Less successful enterprises (say, most commercial airlines and hotel operators) could not — or did not — adapt. These companies saw their revenues and profits plummet. If Covid-19 has taught us anything it’s the importance of being able to pivot quickly in response to sudden changes in the external environment.
In volatile times, flexibility has enormous value. As an analogy, consider sailing. In choppy waters, sailing upwind can be extremely challenging — steering as close as possible to the wind can mean pounding into the waves, which slows the boat down. Instead, falling off of the wind can give you a better angle to the waves and allow you to build up speed. While longer by distance, this maneuver is almost always faster, largely because it’s more flexible.
A few industries have already recognized the value of flexibility in the face of extreme volatility and altered their strategies accordingly. Take aluminum production. The future returns on capital projects, such as investments in new smelter capacity, depend upon highly volatile prices for electricity and aluminum. Price uncertainty means that there may be times when the cash inflows from aluminum sales are insufficient to cover production costs, or (stated differently) lower than the revenues that could be derived from the sale of co-generated or contracted power. Most aluminum producers have strategies that enable them to temporarily suspend production during periods of high energy prices and sell available power to the grid. The few aluminum producers that have stuck with rigid, production-only plans have experienced dramatically lower returns than those opting for more flexible strategies.
Another example: sourcing strategy. Today, supply chains are being assailed by a host of exogenous factors. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, has cut-off the flow of raw materials such as titanium, nickel, and neon. China’s zero-Covid policy has temporarily halted manufacturing in some sectors, hampering the production of everything from automobiles to smart phones. Companies with flexible supply networks, capable of sourcing from multiple suppliers in different regions, have found it easier to cope with these — and other — disruptions. Those with rigid supply chains continue to struggle in the current tumultuous environment.
In an unpredictable world, it might be tempting to throw up your hands and give up on planning altogether. But great performance is rarely the result of happenstance. It requires a direction, even if it isn’t possible to define the exact path.
To better cope with extreme volatility in crafting strategy, companies must change the way they approach strategic planning. They must evolve from a static, plan-then-do model to a dynamic and continuous approach to strategic decision-making and execution.
Dell Technologies was one of the first to adopt this new model shortly after Michael Dell took the company private in October 2013. The company shifted from a traditional planning model — where managers developed a fixed strategic plan each year — to an approach focused on continuously identifying and making critical decisions. This new model — combined with new techniques for making strategic decisions under uncertainty — has enabled Dell Technologies to increase its operating profits by more than four-fold since 2013. Leadership at Dell did not give-up on planning. Instead it adjusted the company’s model to be more fit-for-purpose, given the increasingly uncertain world of technology.
Today’s unpredictable age demands new notions of strategy. As I argue here (and in an HBR article with my Bain colleague Mark Gottfredson, Strategy-Making in Turbulent Times) rigid plans — based on deterministic forecasts — must be discarded and replaced with a more dynamic and decision-focused approach. Flexibility and adaptability must move to the forefront of leadership’s thinking. Otherwise, too many businesses will fall victim to the vagaries of the butterfly effect.