Dear Annie: Once again, for the second time in three years, I’ve been passed over for a promotion that I believe I deserved. Most of the successful new services my team has developed started with my ideas, and everyone acknowledges that. But somehow, when it’s time to put an idea into action, someone else gets tapped to do it. I asked my boss why, and he said that I have a great reputation in this company as a “reliable idea person,” but that he doesn’t see me as “management material,” whatever that means. At the time, I was too disappointed to ask him for an explanation. Can you shed any light on this? How does one become “management material”? — Always a Bridesmaid
Dear A.B.: Cold comfort though it may be, you’re far from alone. Samuel Bacharach, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell, has seen this situation so many times that he wrote a book about it, called The Agenda Mover: When Your Good Idea Is Not Enough. In his consulting work with Fortune 500 companies, Bacharach says, “I’ve spoken with dozens of brilliant ‘creative’ people, including many engineers, who are terribly frustrated — not because they don’t get credit for their ideas, but because, every time they propose something that shows promise, someone else gets to pick it up and run with it.”
That's partly because of what he sees as "an inherent cultural bias that creates an artificial distinction between 'creatives' and people who can execute." But there are drawbacks to dividing up a company's talent that way. One of them is that the person who’s charged with the execution of an idea may not understand it as well, or care about it as much, as the person whose brainchild it was — or he or she may simply have too many other things to do. “So the outcome often isn’t as good as it could have been," Bacharach notes. "It’s not just an individual problem. It’s a problem for organizations." Moreover, he adds, most so-called management training is "beside the point. It's designed as a charisma injection. Meanwhile, most companies aren't giving people the real, hands-on skills they need to move their ideas forward."
By that, he means political skills — but, notes Bacharach, “the phrase ‘office politics’ carries slimy connotations for lots of people, so I call it ‘agenda moving’ instead.” His book spells out in down-to-earth detail a method for turning yourself into that elusive thing your boss calls “management material.” In a nutshell, here they are:
- Anticipate how others will react. “A fundamental mistake is, spending all your time focusing on your idea,” Bacharach says. “There are lots of good ideas, but resources are limited, so you have to be able to convince people to invest in yours.” A universal truth: No matter how good your idea is, someone will resist it. Think ahead of time about why, and line up the facts you need to answer their objections.
- Get support from a few of the right people. “You have to get into a coalition mindset,” says Bacharach. Before you mention your idea to your whole team, he recommends describing it to “a core of individuals who will rally around it with some sense of cohesion and purpose.” They might have suggestions about how to make your idea even better. If so, listen. The more people feel they've had a chance to contribute, the more enthusiastic they're likely to be about "selling" your idea to others in the company.
- Plan a path forward. Make detailed projections of what it will take to put your idea into practice. Consider whose cooperation you’ll need beyond your core group of supporters, and what the possible obstacles and setbacks might be, both inside and outside the company — including how you’d overcome them. Put it in writing.
The fourth step is, for your purposes, probably the most important: Sit down with your boss and tell him about the first three.
“You have to help your boss see you in a different way,” says Bacharach. “So change the way you speak, from the language of creativity to the language of execution.” Present yourself as “management material” by talking, not just about the idea itself, but also about the political and pragmatic aspects of moving it forward.
Of course, that may require a big change in how you see your own role, as well. If you’re not in the habit of looking at your new ideas through this lens, it will take some getting used to. But training yourself to think this way is crucial to moving up. Says Bacharach, “Next time, if you show your boss that you’ve thought an idea all the way through, it will probably make more sense to let you run with it than to hand it off to somebody else.”
And that, in turn, might put you in line for a bigger job.
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