This tale dates back from when I first began working as an operations manager for Citibank. I was responsible for four of the operating units that supported the retail branch network. I was young, but I wasn't a kid.
The young part was in my operational experience. While I was "green" and had things to learn in the operations area, my previous work in marketing, sales, and sales management was valuable enough to qualify me for the new assignment. That's why they offered me the position.
My new boss was a man named Hank. I was somewhat awed by him as I took over my new job. He had started with the bank right out of school and had twenty-five years experience. My goodness, he had been with Citibank for almost as long as I had been alive! He seemed to know where to find the answer to every question, and he was thoroughly conversant with the various daily reports that tracked productivity, volume, mistakes, and so on. I was impressed . . . at first.
But it didn't last. After about one month on the job, Hank gave me an additional task: Create an incentive program that increased productivity. I was happy about this because it was an area in which I had a lot of experience—and I was eager to demonstrate my expertise.
But the happiness faded quickly. Hank gave me the task, then handed me a two-page outline that told me exactly what the program was and how to put it together. He then said, "I'd like to introduce the plan on Friday and begin on Monday. Let me know if there are any problems with that." It was instantly clear that this was an empty assignment. He was not looking for my input or ideas; He wanted me to implement, not think.
I was deflated. Worse than that, I felt his design for the incentive program was all wrong and wouldn't work. His plan rewarded results, and these people didn't know what they needed to do to get those results. I wanted to design an incentive program around the behaviors that would make them effective. Hank wanted to start at the finish line, and the runners didn't know which way to run to get there! So I decided to tell him what I thought and, unfortunately, I didn't spend a lot of time strategizing what to say. I walked into Hank's office and said, "Your plan won't work, Hank."
He looked at me with a rather cold stare and said, "Well, of course it will work. We've done it this way for as long as I can remember."
"But you're rewarding the results instead of the behaviors, and that is strategically wrong with this audience. They don't know how to improve results on their own. I want to redesign it so that it will work. The existing program—the old way—won't work."
Hank looked at me with a hardened stare, "Just do it the way I said to do it." He walked away from me without saying another word.
To Hank's back I said, "I want to redesign it."
Without turning around, Hank said, "No."
I'm sure if Hank had to grade how he felt about me at that moment, I wouldn't have made the honor roll. Not good. A couple more of those situations and I might have never gotten a chance to develop my "operational knowledge"!
No question, Hank was unhappy, but he was not alone. I was so frustrated! I knew I was right. I knew Hank was wrong. It was as simple as that. But I didn't know how to get him to understand how right I was and how wrong he was.
I wish I could tell you that my brilliance saved me at this point. But it took me a little more time to figure out how to disagree with Hank and not get fired.