Tough conversations: How I convince my boss?

You know your development is not over and an EMBA is an opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and challenge your current perception of the world. You also know that developing your potential is both fulfilling for yourself and beneficial for your company. But how to approach your boss with this new learning project and avoid wrong interpretations? A rather tough conversation in perspective. However, a positive outcome is always possible if we prepare it well enough.

“The truly creative person knows that all creating is achieved through working with constraints. Without constraints, there is no creating.” – Robert Fritz

If the outcome seems to be so promising for both you and your company, why you are feeling uncomfortable opening the dialogue with your boss? Well, this can have so many different sources, and you are the only one capable of finding the actual roots. It can be the fear that your management rejects your learning ambitions, the perception of how well your boss thinks of you, or the thought that your manager takes your project as your first step out of the company. Whatever the reasons are, here is a six steps strategy that can get you closer to a positive output for your project and limit your stress.

1. Be clear about your expectations

What kind of support do you want from your manager and your company? Do you want them to lower your current workload? Do you want them to give you opportunities to apply what you are going to learn? Do you want your company to help you financially? What is mandatory for you to succeed and what is nice to have? If you do not know yourself what support you need and expect, it will be hard to explain it to someone else. On the manager’s side, it will be difficult to understand, and when we do not understand we choose the easiest, riskfree answer. In this case, saying no.

It certainly can shorten the discussion and make the stress go away quicker, but this is only to leave the place to a more significant frustration. So go through all the possibilities and prioritise them. Then put your expectation on a paper if visualisation helps you. Or talk to your partner/colleague if the exchange works better for you and define precisely how your manager can help you.

2. Connect your learning project to company’s needs

How to raise the interest of the management? Every company has a purpose and a vision on how to accomplish it that translates into strategy. How does your learning project can be integrated into the implementation of this plan? Talk to people in your company to understand what are the current pain points and challenges that keep the management awake. List them, then connect them with how your new knowledge and improved skills acquired at the EMBA can solve them. Remember that you want to get the buy-in of your manager and avoid misinterpretation, so by identifying several possible scenarios, you prove your global understanding of the company’s situation and more importantly your interest in the company’s future.

3. Prepare your discussion

Now that your expectations are clear and linked directly to the business needs, you need to think how would you like the discussion to take place. It’s not about writing a rigid script, but more on drafting a sequence on how you want to bring ideas into the dialogue. The sequence and the words used make a significant difference on how your project is perceived. Every word has its weight, and we all react differently, but some patterns are similar. For example, starting with negative words will put the person in front of us in a defensive position by default. Make a list of positive words for you to use during the discussion. Example: “commitment”, “opportunity”, “development” etc.

“With your words, you wield the power to plant seeds of either success or failure in the mind of another, and in the process, you reveal who you are, how you think, and what you believe.” – Darlene Price

Last, how to be sure that the wanted words are coming out during the discussion? There is only one way: practice, practice and practice.

4. Find the right moment

Your manager has a million things to think and do every day. So catching him at the coffee machine and starting your sales monologue would only put him in an uncomfortable situation: he was looking for a short pause, a relaxing chit-chat before returning to the budget presentation he worked already all morning. Instead, give him ample notice that you would like to share with him a project important to you. Then plan a dedicated time for the discussion. It can be a dedicated, formal meeting or during your next regular one-to-one. The important part is to be sure that you have his full attention.

5. State your project

When the time comes, take a deep breath and think that you want to create a win-win situation. Start the discussion as you have planned and practised, but pay attention to his reactions and give him space to respond: generate a dialogue. Put questions to understand better his vision of what the team needs. How does he see the company’s challenges and strategy? What is the team’s role in its implementation and what are the boundaries? Engage further in the exchange by linking his inputs to your findings and understanding. Then articulate your project and be clear about your expectations.

6. Find a common purpose

Along the way, there might be some differences of opinion and tension can raise. When this happens, you have to remember that you are aiming for a win-win situation. To get there, you have to find a common purpose. You did your homework well, and you have found great ideas. But putting the focus on a common purpose means that you are open to new ideas and strategies developed during your exchange.

An example

Let’s say your company is looking to expand into a new market that is currently dominated by small & agile start-ups. Your management has identified the company is lacking skills to understand this new and dynamic environment. They are missing the bandwidth to go further, and the frustration is growing. You have identified this during the step 2. You also find out that programs like EPFL EMBA equip you with the knowledge and tools of how to harness innovation in a company. You thought it was a good win-win, but your manager doesn’t seem enthusiastic. When asking if you are missing something, he shares with you that is a question of time: the need for today and they need action less theory. A new opportunity pops into your mind while he was speaking: the Strategic and Innovative Project that you need to deliver during the program. You could start working on the project right away and perform a complete analysis of the targeted market and a plan how to enter it. Your management can benefit directly and in an applied way of your learning during the course. What are the chances that your manager consider and support your project now?

There are so many factors that you must consider before engaging yourself on the EMBA learning path. The journey is not one person challenge. It’s a collective, limited but intense effort where your environment plays an important role. If you read our guide “5 questions before applying for an EMBA“, it will be no surprise to you that the decision process implies getting your environment onboard. Your company and your boss is part of this context. By finding a common purpose, your learning project can only be more fulfilling.