How to Lead Under Fire

Author: Steve Tobak,

stressed-while-at-workIf you’re not periodically under fire by your management and peers then your career’s probably not going anywhere. It’s sort of like “no pain no gain.” If you push the envelope and take risks, then you’re going to get mercilessly grilled from time to time. That’s just the way it works. And if you seriously want to get promoted and make something of yourself, you have to learn to handle it. No, I’m not talking about growing thick skin and becoming a human punching bag. I’m talking about learning to handle getting fired upon like a true leader. Everyone will walk out of the room thinking you’re the next Lou Gerstner or Jack Welch. Okay, maybe not, but they’ll definitely think more of you and will more readily accept your ideas, proposals, and most importantly, promotions.

How’d I learn this stuff? By spending much of my career selling innovative strategies to risk averse CEOs, CFOs, and management teams. Sure, I probably came across as whiny and defensive in the early days, but in time I learned the ropes. Here they are:

How to Lead Under Fire

1. Don’t get emotionally attached to your ideas. It’s good to be passionate about your ideas, but if you’re emotionally attached to them, it’ll come through when you’re getting grilled. And managers are incredibly distrustful of ideologues trying to shove things down their throats. It’s all about positioning. In your mind, you have to be willing to walk away. That little separation will give you the appearance of perspective and poise under fire.
2. Learn to embrace alternative views. The best way to respond to most objections is by first embracing them, then explaining why your plan is better or at least equivalent. Again, it’s a positioning game. But there’s a subtle but significant difference between, “My approach is better and here’s why,” and “That’s an interesting idea; here’s why I think this might be a better approach.”
3. Master the art of zinger retorts. When you’re getting grilled there will inevitably be some real zingers. Well, there’s only one way to beat a zinger and that’s with a zinger retort. How do you get good at zinger retorts? By getting good at thinking on your feet, which is really equal parts knowledge, experience, preparation, and of course, self confidence. Also, it’s essential to maintain a sense of humor under fire.
4. Know your stakeholders. Of course you need to know your material cold and expect the worst. Unfortunately, that’s not even close to good enough. You also have to know the stakeholders, aka your audience, and have a pretty good idea of their likely objections. A few one-on-one premeetings are a good idea. Then you’ll be ready to counter effortlessly.
5. Never, ever lose control of the meeting. It’s your meeting, or at least your time to present, so you’re in charge and you need to act like it. I don’t care if the CEO and CFO start going down a rat hole on some mindlessly trivial point. You have to be adept at all the usual techniques for keeping meetings on track, on topic, and on time. Come to think of it, that’s probably a topic of its own.

Tobak, Steve. “The Corner Office mobile edition.” BNET Blogs mobile edition. CBS Interactive, 25 Mar. 2010. Web. 26 Mar. 2010. .

Melissa Robaina

About Melissa Robaina

Melissa Robaina, MBA is an Appreciative Inquiry Facilitator and Consultant for the Company of Experts. For the last few years, Melissa has worked for the Company as a content creator and has collaborated with numerous subject matter experts around the world researching, organizing, and writing material that nurtures discussion and is applicable to today’s rapidly changing environment. Melissa has an interest in adult learning theory and is passionate about coordinating, developing, and facilitating transformation solutions in all human systems. Melissa has also co-facilitated Company of Experts offerings related to Change, Paradigm Shifts and Online offerings.

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