Deadlines are, of course, a source of both stress and productivity for managers. But what can you do when your leadership is setting deadlines you and your team just can’t meet? To get insights into handling this common challenge, we spoke with several people one-on-one, including Asim Ibrahim, Everwise Mentor and CEO of the Lakeshore Hospitality Group, and Hani Roustom, a luxury hotel chain executive. Asim has been one of Hani’s mentors and Hani credits Asim with important contributions to his professional growth. The below is guidance from their years of experience.
Both Ibrahim and Roustom emphasized communication, trust, and a proactive approach to understanding leadership’s priorities. Roustom summarized by quoting Steven Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”
Understand your leaders’ goals
When you feel unable to achieve the goals your leadership is setting, the pathway to a solution is almost inevitably through dialog. That’s only possible if you’ve built trust and are able to have an empathic understanding of your leaders’ perspectives. What you’re ultimately looking to do is get at their motivations – the root causes of their concerns – so that you can address them. It’s not that you have to agree, but you need to be able to truly say “I can see genuinely good reasons why you might have that perspective” and use that understanding to guide your conversation
Dig deeper on priorities to focus and narrow scope
Ibrahim tells the story of getting feedback from the General Manager of a 200-acre hotel about personally overseeing the fine details of the appearance of the hotel – practically down the last blade of grass. Taken at face value, it was an unmanageable task. By asking good questions and listening carefully, he was able to determine that his boss’s concerns really focused on making sure the restaurants, which were running very well as-is, were held to an even higher standard of cleanliness. That narrowed the scope of the work to something far more manageable – making further improvements to the restaurants, not every aspect of the grounds. At the same time, he was able to make sure that his team did more to attend to other details throughout the rest of the hotel.
Don’t take it personally
Focus the conversation around the underlying challenge, not the personalities or positions people are taking. Roustom tells the story of a team lead at a luxury resort who was frustrated that his budget (and thus ability to hire people) was being cut while his team’s workload remained the same. The team lead took the issue personally. If he had instead turned his focus towards senior leadership’s perspective and asked for the reasoning behind the cuts, he would have learned that they were anticipating a major economic downturn; the reduction in budget would likely spare the him a painful round of layoffs as workload dropped off.
Keep it grounded in data
Another important strategy for keeping the conversation from becoming personal is to be as data-driven as possible. Prioritize the work and map out the resources and timelines you think will be needed. Look for benchmarks.
One of Everwise’s managers tells a story (from his pre-Everwise days!) of inheriting a project that had been scoped with no input from the team. His team was working 16 hour days and weekends until, thankfully, someone with a strong operations background was able to pull together enough data to show three things: First, that the high-performing team was being asked to be very concretely three times as productive as they’d been on their most aggressive past projects. Second, the actual number of hours and weekend days the team was working. Third, measurable signs of burnout like increased absenteeism due to illness and some talk of resignations.
When leadership realized that the deadlines, which had been considered sacred, might simply not be met, they moved them back significantly. When it was clear that this alone would not cut the work sufficiently to ensure the new deadlines were met, they also cut project requirements with the help of the ops manager’s thoughtful prioritization.
Finally, if the constraints are rigid, prioritize, stay positive, and do your best
Roustom maintains that he’s been fortunate enough to consistently work with very positive, collaborative leadership. He adds though, that if your leadership is insistent, your best last resort is to agree on a prioritization of the work, offer to give it your best shot, and, importantly, keep leadership regularly apprised of progress.
Get in the habit of learning what leadership wants before they have to tell you
At the end of our conversation with Ibrahim, he emphasized the importance of getting out in front of the problem. Returning to our earlier story, after working to understand his General Manager’s priorities of focusing on improving the restaurants, he put more process in place for staying up to date on his boss’ goals and priorities. This very substantially strengthened their relationship. It paved the way for a lot of constructive dialogue down the road, made scoping conversations much more productive, and ended up with Ibrahim having increased access to top leadership.