The easy part is acknowledging the problem; the much harder part is talking to senior leaders about the changes you’d like to see made–without overstepping or sounding like a know-it-all. Here’s what it takes.
FIND A SMALL FIX
It’s a fine line to walk, but I’ve done it plenty of times in my career, even when I was just starting out. Part of my responsibilities in a position a few years ago was to attend weekly team meetings. These meetings lacked structure and in my opinion were a complete waste of everyone’s time pretty much four times out of five. As the lowest person on the totem pole at the time, I could’ve just sucked it up and settled on complaining each week to a coworker who felt the same way.
But instead, knowing it was highly unlikely those meetings could be cancelled altogether, I considered possible solutions: What could be implemented pretty quickly to improve our team’s efficiency during the time we met? I quickly realized that, for starters, we lacked a clear agenda. So, based on the topics we regularly discussed, I put together a sample weekly agenda that could guide us each week.
Then I printed it out and asked to meet with one of the senior leaders who was in charge of running the meetings. Rather than stirring up unnecessary emotions and telling her how aggravating I found the meetings, I told her:
“I think that our weekly meetings are a great way for everyone to touch base and stay informed on the latest projects and client developments. But I’ve noticed they could probably be more effective and efficient if we had an agenda to guide what we cover. With that in mind, I mocked one up – take a look. What are your thoughts on it? I can also run it by the team to see if they have anything they’d like to include to make it better.”
The result? She loved the idea, and thanked me for thinking about how I could make meetings run more more smoothly. Afterward, I emailed the sample agenda to my team and asked them for their input to enhance it, and soon afterward we implemented the final version. As a result, our meeting time was cut in half, we were able to get more out of each meeting, and we even ended up having fewer meetings in total since quick updates based on the agenda could be sent over email.
Sure, the changes you’d like to see at work may be a lot more complex than the need for an agenda during a meeting. But this is still the basic formula for solving problems that go beyond your pay grade. The key is simple but sometimes easy to miss when you’re frustrated: Rather than whining about the individuals you may see as responsible for a workplace headache, focus on the underlying issue that’s causing them to behave in a way you find aggravating. I could’ve blamed the person running the meeting, but it was much better to come up with a simple tool to help her run it better.
ALWAYS BE SOLUTIONS-DRIVEN
Never present a problem without a solution; if you haven’t identified a possible fix, you haven’t thought about it long enough. Before you arrange time to speak or email your boss or any higher-ups about an issue, take time to imagine how you’d solve the problem if you were in their shoes. Then narrow down to a specific approach you feel would yield the best results–but come armed with options. Brainstorm a few alternatives to your main idea, and make sure you can point to the benefits and implications of each one.
SHOW RESPECT TO GET RESPECT
It’s often less about the solution itself, and more about how you present it. When requesting a change, first be clear that you value your senior leader’s position, goals, and perspective on the matter. You want your boss to know that you’re not against their interests; instead, you’ve found a new way to support them. Avoid any phrases or expressions that could make your boss defensive–because if that happens, your solution won’t even matter.
ACCEPT FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE EXECUTION
This is the element many people tend to forget early in their careers, thinking that just proposing a solution is enough. But if your suggestion is approved, don’t wait for someone else to implement it and then let them get all the credit. Take responsibility for the next steps and the outcome. The last thing your manager wants is to add another project to her plate, so let her know right away that you’re ready to spearhead the execution of your idea. Remember to spell out the first one to three steps you plan to take, just to make sure you’re on the same page before snapping into action.
When you frame solutions as way to make others’ lives easier, you’re more likely to be seen as a leader and strategic thinker–and overstepping won’t even cross anyone’s mind.
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