How to Say No to Your Boss

What should you do when the CEO keeps demanding things from IT and there are no more resources to do it?

What should you do when demands pile up so high that you and your team are constantly over-worked and the work just keeps coming?

I always talk about how you need to rise above the tactical workload and be more strategic, but what do you do when it’s your boss that is causing the problem?

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit when I was running a $1B software organization, I was the one who was guilty of doing these exact same things!

The workload disconnect

There is a built-in disconnect that I find very interesting: When you are working in IT, generally speaking, your job is get the work done. To provide the applications and services the business is counting on. But, when you are the CEO or GM running a business, generally speaking, your job is to go out into the world, learn things about the customers, the competition, and the market and figure out new stuff to do.

Then you come back all excited about what you’ve learned, and share your ideas with your team about how to improve the business — and, to no one’s surprise but you’re own, they are exasperated. What you see as great new ideas, they see as more work, yet another change of direction, or more fire drills.

Unfortunately, there will always be a disconnect between what the boss thinks up and what the IT organization (or any organization) can deliver. So here’s the secret: Your boss wants you to push back.

Your boss is expecting you to think through the business strategy and the workload and offer advice on how to manage it, not to just try and do everything. I know that when I came back from a trip, my staff would brace themselves and think, “Oh, no! She’s back. Now what? What else is she going to want us to do? We are already too busy, why does she keep piling it on?”

As the boss, I wanted my team to listen and internalize what I had learned. But I did not want them to treat all ideas and requests equally and immediately, and simply add them to the backlog. I did not want my team to take on all the work and have it kill them. I did not want nor expect them to do everything.

What I wanted was for them to catch all the work, analyze it, make judgments about business priorities and come back to me and negotiate.

Advise your executive

Big Idea: You need to catch all the work, but not do all the work.

I wanted my team to stay focused on the strategic stuff we were working on, but also be aware of what key triggers were occurring in the market. I wanted them to think it though and recommend to me how we could stage out all the work. I wanted their thoughts on how could we keep focused on the right strategic stuff, but then also come up with a way to prioritize the new ideas and take some of them on over time?

I wanted them to suggest ways of streamlining or stopping things to make room for something new. I wanted them to debate with me about what is most important and why, and suggest how to re-work the plan to do the most important things first.

The people who would come back to me with a thoughtful proposal for what to do, in what order, that would be good for the business, and do-able for the team were the ones that stood out as high performers. These were the people who didn’t just accept all my ideas and requests — they helped me think through the strategy and prioritize.

The ones who tried to take on all the work and do everything, resulting in everything slipping were not so impressive. The ones who simply ignored my inputs, kept their heads down, and did not step up to the strategic thinking and debate were not so impressive either. I would look at them and think, I see that you are overwhelmed, but I need you to be more strategic. I need you think. I need you to recommend a better way forward, not just be overwhelmed.

How to negotiate the load

So, in a practical sense, how do you this? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Keep a list of everything your boss asks for.
  • Keep a list of the top strategic priorities you are working on.
  • Have regular meetings with your boss where you take out these lists.
  • Make recommendations about what to prioritize based on the context of business and the content of these two lists.

When you show your boss these lists several things happen:

  • They get embarrassed not realizing they have asked for so many things. When they see it spelled out right there in front of them, they can see it’s unreasonable.
  • You win lots of credibility for keeping the list, catching everything, and not dropping anything. You make them comfortable that you’ve got it covered. They trust you.
  • You can ask them “Is this still important?” You will find they have forgotten about several of the requests and have decided that others don’t matter anymore.
  • You will realize that you are not beholden to everything on the list!
  • You will be able to negotiate timelines and suggest priorities.

Your boss forgets

There is a tendency to treat all requests from the boss equally. You need to resist this because they don’t intend them all equally. The CEO can seem equally excited or serious about a wide range of ideas. Some are vitally important, others are just musings. It’s often hard to tell. They will often forget things that asked for, or change their mind without telling you.

You need to check.

They need you to help them with their thinking.

You are being paid to judge and decide, not just to deliver.

Patty is an executive, author, speaker, and the CEO of Azzarello Group, a unique services organization that helps companies execute their strategy and develop their leaders. You can find her on twitter: @pattyazzarello.