When your VP doesn’t understand your job
A common problem experts have is working for an executive who has no idea what they do.
The trap is often that the expert is hired before anyone understands what changes are needed in the organization for that expert to be effective. So the expert, lets say it’s a designer, sits on the sidelines, frustrated, while the VP is happy since now s/he can say “We have a design expert on staff” even if that expert isn’t contributing anything at all.
As frustrating as it can be, this situation is common. It just means you have to be an advocate for your role, instead of just performing it. Here’s a battle plan:
- Make small wins. Pick one specific problem you can solve that the VP, or their organization, already values (e.g increasing profits, improving customer satisfaction, reducing costs) and go do it. Do it well. Then point to what you did and ask for a little bit more responsibility. Focus on making simple and clear contributions to earn basic respect from your peers on their terms.
- Use their language, not yours. Stop using your domain language, and translate into the language of the people in power. This may mean learning about P&Ls, marketing plans, test regressions, or other terms, but speak their language and offer your value in terms they know, instead of insisting they learn yours. You are on their turf and should act accordingly. Think of yourself as Navy SEAL, adapting to the terrain you land in. If you can’t translate your work into terms they understand you will fail for that reason alone.
- Get a supporter. Of the people interested in your work, who has the best combination of power and interest? They’re your ally and you need to cultivate their support. Share your goals and ask for their advice. “I’d like to be involved earlier in the decision making process. How do you suggest I make this happen here?” As an outsider, you need insider support to have any chance of growing political capital.
- Find something small and specific to ask for. Anyone who does not know what you do has no reason to invest in you. Your relationship with them begins with you asking for something small and reasonable, and using it for the benefit of the entire team. Ask for a small amount of money, ask for a small amount of time from programmers, but ask. Offer something in return: higher quality, greater efficiency, higher profits. Something. When you get what you ask for, hit it out of the park – do an amazing job. You may only get one shot so make it good. Show the results and if everyone is positive ask for something a little bigger. Repeat.
- Show an example from a company/team they admire. If there is another project in your company where you role is well understood, use them as an example. Show how your counterparts in that organization interact, and how they benefit from it. If you can’t find an example in your company, look to other companies your VP admires.
- Worry about your peers first. It’s hard to score points up the food chain without a good reputation at your own place in the org chart. It’s daft to take on the VP when the middle level managers don’t know who you are either, or worse, think of you as someone who complains all the time but adds no value. You might have a local manager who is well connected up the food chain: if you can get a small amount of support from them, it will open doors you can not open yourself.
- Maybe the VP doesn’t need to know. VPs often have less power or influence than you think. There may be a team lead or group manager who is the true power source for your project. Think carefully about what power you need to be successful and who can grant it to you. It’s likely someone more within reach in the org chart than the VP. And of course, consider this: the best way to be introduced into the VPs power circle is by invitation. If your reputation for making big contributions precedes you, they may in fact seek you out, and not the other way around.
Great post, Scott!
If the VP doesn’t understand your job, there’s a real risk that they are completely clueless. I covered this in a response to an article in CIO magazine last year:
“but ads no value. You might have a local manager who is well connected up the food change:”
(Feel free to delete this comment after fixing.)
Fixed – thx.