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.

What my EMBA gave me that my PhD in natural sciences could not

If you are looking for an article describing how much your salary is going to increase or how fast you will move up the ladder within your company after an EMBA, this is not the article you should read. I did not decide to do an EMBA for those reasons (at least they were not my main reasons). My motivation for pursuing an EMBA came from something very common among scientists: the thirst for knowledge.

I am a scientist at my core and I will probably always be, independently of the job I end up doing. I was fascinated by cellular and molecular biology since I was in school and I could not wait to finish university to start a PhD. Once I finally reached that stage in my life, I found myself living three and a half years of incredible excitement. The learning curve was exceptionally steep. I was using cutting edge technology, driving a fascinating project, working with patient associations, presenting my work at international conferences and collaborating with laboratories in other countries. I felt alive and with a true purpose, I never thought I could be doing anything else than research… at the time.

Somewhere between my PhD and my first postdoc I started noticing the downside and the flaws of academic research, and some of the things I saw came into conflict with my fundamental believes. There were vital skills and knowledge that were missing in the academic research environment: how to define and keep control of the long-term strategy, how to use resources effectively, how to formulate a value proposition that resonated with the ultimate market (the payer, the patient)… all in all it missed the fundamental strategic planning of how the research would be applied in the real world. I realised that I had spent almost 10 years in a career where I never really learned how to do any of that.

I decided to start an EMBA because it was the most efficient way to get that knowledge and those skills, and in retrospective, I really think it was the right decision for me. At this stage of my life (pre-EMBA), I had already taken the decision to leave research, and although I did not know exactly what I wanted to do, I did know that I wanted to stay in the field of biotechnology. An EMBA in Management of Technologies fit very well into that plan.

What I learned from the EMBA went well beyond my initial expectations, and my two biggest gains were without any doubt “perspective” and “teamwork skills”. These are some of the differences between what I learned in my PhD in natural sciences (academia-based) and what I learned in my EMBA:

What EMBA taught that my PhD didn't

Language

My PhD taught me how to talk to scientists; I learned a complex technical language that I could use with my peers. My EMBA, on the other hand taught me how to talk to all the stakeholders in a business ecosystem; from how to talk about numbers with an investor or intellectual property rights with a lawyer, to how to talk about tangible benefits to a costumer.

Use of logic

During my PhD I learned how to produce, handle and analyse large sets of data. I was taught to use logic for complex problem solving.  My EMBA gave “People skills”, it taught me that conventional logic is not always applicable in matters of human perception and interaction. Beyond the “business language” itself, the EMBA taught me to understand the reasoning and motivation of people with backgrounds different from natural sciences. That information alone showed to be very powerful for working in teams.

Selling

As a PhD I showcased my research to a scientific audience, relying strongly on rational thinking. The EMBA showed me that in business we sell ideas based on insights from potential customers, while leveraging perceptions and emotional biases.

Structure

With my PhD I learned how to write well-structured, well-referenced, consistent documents. With my EMBA I learned less structured, but more appealing ways of presenting information.

Money

In academic research one is told that some of the resources used in the lab are more expensive than others and that one should be conscious about the expenses. In business, one uses systematic tools to forecast cash flows, monitor expenses and make Net Present Value assessments.

Project management

As a PhD I learned to lead my own project and to leverage international collaborations. Beyond that my EMBA taught me to monitor and measure the progress of a project and most importantly, it taught me that the inflow of money is dependent on progress.

Market research

During my PhD I was used to only monitor new technologies and discoveries within my field or applicable to my field. During my EMBA I understood that I should follow not only my market of interest, but also everything that can have an influence on it: politics, economy, law, technological trends, etc.

Organisational structure

My years in research gave me an overview of the career progression and structure of an academic environment. My 16 months EMBA helped me discover the structure of complex organizations, the role and function of the different departments and the way they interact with each other.

KPIs

In research I learned that a scientist is measured through one main tool: number and quality of publications. In business however,there are other key performance indicators: revenue, network growth and client satisfaction, among others.

Career path

My PhD set up a path for me to become a specialist in a field of research, it made me better in what I was. The EMBA showed me that research was not my only interest. It presented me with other career opportunities to pursue and it primed me for something new. The EMBA alone however did not allow me to switch careers while continuing on the same hierarchical level. I had to learn to accept that in my new career path, I was in many aspects starting all over again. My soft skills were transferable, but my experience was not.

 

I felt in love with science the way one falls in love with its first true love: wholehearted, committed, full of drive and completely reluctant to the idea that there could be anything/anyone else or that I would ever want something different. Through my EMBA I discovered a passion for something else, something that fit better the person I have come to be and the ambitions I have come to develop.

When to Seek Your Place at the Table

When is the right time to do an MBA?

Many people ask “When is the right time to do an MBA?” The specific questions they should ask are “What stage of life is the best time to do an MBA?” and “When are my goals aligned with those of an MBA?” Beyond the parameters set by the program, such as required education and years of work experience, the answers to these are what define how suitable a person is to the desired program or vice versa.

The Full-Time MBA

Since a full-time MBA tends to be a major jumping-off point in a person’s life—given that it will interrupt a candidate’s career for the 1-2 years of such a program—people usually do this when they want a major change in their career. They are generally younger (the programs tend to cater to this demographic) and less entrenched in their career path.

Although programs often seek to diversify their student cohorts, having a clear outlier in the group (e.g. someone much older) can cause problems with group cohesion. So many programs tend to have an upper age limit for full-time MBAs or even part-time (non-executive) MBAs. As a rule-of-thumb, 35 years old tends to be on the senior side of the full-time MBA crowd.

Given these points, the choice of when to do a full-time MBA is fairly clear-cut:

  • Younger (< 35)
  • Not strongly entrenched in your company
  • Not already on a management development track

The Executive MBA

The EMBA is intended for experienced working professionals who will complete the program while at the same time working. It is no simple task—most EMBA programs are no less rigorous than full-time programs and demand effort from the candidate both outside and within the workplace. This is because programs often intend participants to apply their learnings in the realistic environment of their work.

An EMBA is not just something to do “after hours,” it is all-encompassing. For that reason, the decision to undertake an EMBA should not be taken lightly. It will take time away from your family, your friends, your work, and your leisure. Most people who consider such a program, however, have already accepted at least the initial concept of it (trust me, no matter how much a person conceptualises it, the reality of it will be a shock).

Despite knowing that “it’s a big deal,” potential applicants still wrestle with the “is now the right time” question. The first piece of advice I have is that you have to want it. That means you need to expect an outcome other than just a piece of paper or a line on your CV.

The other question you have to ask is “Is the MBA the right thing for you?” An MBA, even a program that has a particular theme or focus, is a general management program. Depending upon your capabilities and desires, the 2,000 or so hours that you will invest in this pursuit could go just as well into building a particular skillset that could well generate a better return on investment. And remember, it’s not just about money—you will have to find satisfaction in the outcome.

What do you want from an MBA?

What is the outcome of an MBA? While some may believe that it is a general knowledge of a range of management topics, such as accounting, finance, operations management, etc., the actual product is awareness. The knowledge inherent to any course in any MBA program can come from any of a hundred books that speak authoritatively to the topic. The awareness, on the other hand, is built by the multi-dimensionality of the experience on the whole; each instructor brings an individual perspective, not only in the theoretical framework of her topic but also in the manner in which her expertise relates to other courses, to business, and to management as a whole. Many of the lecturers may have different perspectives—all of them well-founded—that create a multifaceted diversity in thought that enriches the overall result.

In the context of the executive MBA, the average classroom holds more than a century of collective experience in the form of contextual knowledge of the participants. Some of the greatest lessons occur when, in the context of a lecture session, a participant relates an activity in her work environment that she thought was merely a standard procedure, but only then realises it has a higher strategic purpose.  These types of applied revelations shared with the group produce an awareness not only of knowledge within each participant but of a collective knowledge amongst the network that extends beyond the classroom and the duration of the program.

Why do you want it?

Undertaking an MBA, executive or otherwise, is a massive undertaking and requires significant sacrifice, so you will have to be clear on why you want to do so. You are good at your job and are clear on all the duties it entails. You may find that you are even a bit bored with the day-to-day routine and you want new challenges. This usually means that you’ve been in your position for a few years.

Doing an EMBA in the first year of a new job is most often not a great idea. Stepping into a new role requires a significant amount of learning and adaptation in itself. Having to learn on two fronts tends to add undue stress. In this case, best to defer your choice to do an EMBA for a year or so, unless that new position necessitates that you have the equivalent knowledge of an MBA to do it effectively. Many companies groom their staff for advanced positions by encouraging them to do MBAs in anticipation of the needs of a new placement. For this reason, it is often better to do the MBA before taking that big promotion.

What Do You Want It to Communicate?

Sometimes, management does not realise that you are looking for advancement; this is where the MBA is a good signal. It informs management that you are determined to take a seat at the table where the strategic decisions of the firm originate. When asked why they want to do an MBA, candidates often say that they are good at managing projects, but that they want to be part of the process of deciding what projects the firm undertakes.

Some MBA programs require participants to write a thesis, and this, too, can be a useful tool. If the thesis project can take place in-company, then it is an opportunity to showcase your talents to a strategically selected company manager who acts as your supervisor on the project. It is often something that explores some untapped potential of the firm and shows you as the person who can unlock that potential.

Ultimately, the choice to do an MBA is not only about where you are now, but also where you want to be and what trajectory will get you there. While it is ultimately up to you to decide when to set out on the MBA journey, the signals are within you and all around you. Just consider where you are in life, what you want, and why you want it.