Hallway Studio

February 29, 2020

I’ve seen CEOs who are deeply involved in color schemes, CTOs who want to control every architecture decision and product leaders who are very particular about agile rituals. 

I’ve written before about how to manage up. If you want to manage a CXO (CEO, CPO, CTO or one of the random other ones) and get them to let go there are a few simple things you can do that have worked pretty well for me in a variety of situations. 

Understand triggers 

CXOs, especially CEOs, carry a load no one sees and only they feel. They feel pressure from the board and investors. They feel pressure that comes from knowing how many people are counting on the company’s performance to pay their bills. They feel pressure to deliver for customers. 

Showing you understand this pressure, you understand the business and it’s objectives. You understand what the risks are will go a long way in getting them to let go. 

It’s OK to ask your leader why this is an area that’s very important them or what they are trying to achieve. Use their own words to help show your understanding, this is a technique hostage negotiators use. When you are going to propose something refer back to their objectives or pains before you propose it. 

Establish principles 

Design principles are great in helping a team come to an agreement on the type of experience they want to create and guide decision-making. Years ago I was working with a CRO with a global B2B sales team. He wasn’t going to go to design review every week. Instead I got him to agree to principles, one of them was “support the conversation.” He wanted sales people to be seen as strategic partners and not order takers.

Over the years I’ve expanded beyond design to use principles to guide technical and business decisions too. Sometimes the leader I’m working with wants to diverge from the principles and referencing them helps us all know if we’re changing direction or we forgot it temporarily.

Schedule regular review sessions 

Regular design keep the design team organized and focused on delivering. It makes it easy to show things early on before we get too far down a path. It provides a venue to share insights from research and testing.

Depending on the organization this typically happens weekly, every other week or monthly. I wouldn’t let things go further than that. I also encourage you to have a standard presentation format that includes the context and to establish ground rules for giving feedback.

Give them direction  

Most leaders I know want to be helpful and add value to their teams. So give them something to do to help you. Absent your direction they are going decide on their own and you may or may not like that.

Maybe they can explain something for you, connect you to someone, clear a blocker or help you think through something. Inviting them in a productive way will make both of you happy.

In my experience these techniques establish understanding and trust that makes it OK for them to let go and be more wiling to confront their sacred cows.

Image: Stained glass windows at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

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