How Can I Get Upper Management Support?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about getting upper management support: How can I get upper management to support me in not allowing others to get away with undermining my authority?

I currently work at a career school handling student loan default prevention. I handle default prevention at a campus level, but a new position was created shortly after I came on board that was offered to me to oversee our other 3 campuses as well. Part of the problem is the fact that I work out of one of the campuses and not out of the corporate office, and there is a level of competitiveness among campuses that makes it difficult to gain the other campus’ trust that I am in fact looking out for their best interest and not trying to make the campus I work at look the best.

The second challenge I am facing is that we have designed a new default prevention plan that has been successful for the campuses that have followed it, but we have one campus that consistently has the best numbers for enrollments and the owner has let them “march to the beat of their own drum” so to speak in other areas. However, their default rate is always the worst and the director of that campus has no regard for my authority and insists on contradicting what I ask the other default managers to do. This is particularly frustrating because I am held accountable by the owner for everyone’s percentages. The bottom line is I am not getting the support I need from upper management and my staff is not being held accountable to follow through with being compliant with the default prevention plan we designed.

Despite upper management’s request to the one director I’ve had issues with, he continues to make hiring/firing decisions without involving me. My staff is constantly assigned to help other departments some tasks which actually are a conflict of interest with their job as default managers. It seems as though they don’t take me or the position as a default manager seriously. They don’t see it as a full time position or understand what the job entails so they constantly use the default managers for any odd task that comes up. I apologize for the lengthiness of this, but there is a lot involved and the management structure isn’t exactly the norm. Any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated.

Signed: Get No Respect
Dear Get No Respect:

Not to minimize your question, I have assigned your question a Roger Dangerfield kind of signature—get no respect. It seems that the complexity of your question implies that you feel you lack the respect of and are not given authority by Upper Management and later from whom I read you refer to as the Owner, and more particularly you don’t get respect by particular director of one the three other campuses than yours, what I am calling number four with the low loan default prevention rate who contradicts your new plan. That stings and I can see you see no humor in not following your plan, yet when you think about it gaining compliance for a new plan by loan default prevention managers in three out of four campuses that is more than good. If all baseball players got a hit three times out of four times at bat, they would feel like they were due a huge bonus.

You write “we have designed a new default prevention plan.” However you don’t say who is or are the “we” that designed it. Nor you describe the process of its design. And herein may lie a lack of “ownership” of this new plan. You acknowledge concern those at other campuses may think you are in it for yourself. That is evident in you saying competitiveness among campuses makes it “difficult to gain the other campus’ trust that I am in fact looking out for their best interest and not trying to make the campus I work at look the best.” You are annoyed in that the owner allows campus four to do what it likes because enrollments are high despite the fact that it loan defaults also are high. You are irritated because you aren’t consulted and seen as a full-time loan default prevention manager and are respected to take on incidental tasks. In short you feel your job description and authority clear

You are to be congratulated to have been promoted to oversee the loan fault prevention for all campuses. You imply but don’t say precisely what you would do if you were upper management/owner, but I gather you imply you would like for those on high to say, “Listen to Jan, our overseer of loan default prevention; just Do-What Jan has ordered. All of you loan default prevention managers obey Jan or else.” In particular, you are displeased with campus four director who contradicts you. You stipulate that your position is frustrated even more in that you are not located in corporate headquarters and that the campuses compete—probably you mean they all compete in their enrollment and for bottom line profitability.

Distance does affect relationships and frustrates earning trust and compliance. Consequently, you appear to lack a bridge to cross that gap between Upper Management/Owner (UM/O) and you. You question indicates a case needs to be made for gaining compliance and respect of your authority, needs to be made to UM/O. How can that gap be bridged? When do you meet? How do you communicate-by phone, email, Skype, memo, directive, face-to-face or staff meeting? What kind of graphics and stats are displayed regarding enrollment, loan defaults, and bottom line? What directives have been sent to campus headmasters? When do they convene face-to-face?

From what I gather, you have some access to these numbers. Now is it not time for you to confer with UM/O and to seek their collaborative analysis and problem-solving for how all campus loan default prevention managers should function? Now is it not time to propose how UM/O wants you to report and function in this new role of overseers of loan default prevention? In short, is it not time to talk about talk—how UM/O wants to communicate with you and you with them?

Ideally what you need is not a mandate of authority but to find in someone in UM/O a sponsor for your role—to advise and help you to make it effective. What you need is support in how to earn the collaboration rather than contradiction of the director at campus four in lowering the loan default rate. If I have described your concerns adequately, then the challenge for you is to put your head to work on how and when to approach UM/O. This will entail getting your numbers correct and making sure there is a significant difference between campuses in which you assert the new default plan is in fact working and campus four in which it is not. You will need to understand the larger picture of why the loan default prevention plan is good and that where it is not being follow if there are justifiable reasons why it is not followed.

This is to suggest that seeking authority isn’t your major concern. What you are looking for in not an immediate hardening of consequences of what happens if everyone doesn’t follow the new default prevention procedure. Rather what you will be seeking a collaborative mindset to gain sponsorship. This means you will need to think like an owner who wants your career school to be profitable and simultaneously to empathize with those clients who are suffering default. You will want to feel the pain of enrolling those that they doomed to suffer debt default. You will need support in how to engage loan default prevention manager in analyzing and working with those who are enrolling the wrong individuals who are likely to default. It’s a delicate and complex walk on the tight rope with coming across as boss and co-worker with all hired to work on this task,

Although your question doesn’t deal with this matter, I expect you have thought about the fact that you are in a moral as well as a practical position and consequently your search for UM/O support is an engagement of attitude and procedure. Intellectually you no doubt understand this but have not developed a relationship with those above in how your role relates to generating a successful career school operation. I propose three steps you might take to answer your question:

1. Schedule a time to discuss your specific problem of non-compliance with your default procedure. Make that the reason for your request of a session with UM/O. This may require more than one session.

2. Seek to learn how UM/O wants you to function and to communicate what they want done, but approach it as collaborative problem solving. That is, does UM/O think what is decided should be told the director of campus four or might that director have more ownership in it if he/she invited to engage problem-solving of what works effectively in lowering defaults?

3. In the course of your discussion of what to do and how to approach it, talk about how you fit into the big picture. Preface or entwine collaborative problem-solving and your own desire for making this oversight default position to work well and with your long-term commitment to wanting a sponsor who will mentor you. Such a talk might not occur in the first of such meetings, but talking about the big picture can evolve to that topic. There is a good change for a positive response to asking for help to make your role effective.

These three-steps are presented for your consideration. Feel free to reject or modify them in light of your knowledge of the personnel involved. Hopefully they will prompt a creative and constructive path to your work within your current role and future. At the very least, I suggest you see this not just as a conflict over compliance, but as an adventure in shaping a supportive relationship with upper management and in helping distant coworkers to see their work as collaboratively competitive—to make each campuses better and the whole career school as the best possible. “Ownership” in the big picture is not won in a day. It requires persistence and cheer-leading. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS is not just a rhetorical maxim. Will you make time in the next few weeks to let us know what you choose to do and what works or falls short?
–William Gorden
Thank you so much for the advice I really appreciate it. I have spoken to the director and “campus 4” and have stressed that if he feels that there is a different or better way to do things or there is a problem with the plan we have designed that I am certainly willing to talk about it and consider any suggestions he may have…but we need to communicate in order to be in the same page…something that is almost impossible to get him to do.

As far as the term “we” in reference to the default prevention plan that was designed…I meant that I took the input of my team and created the plan and then had it approved by a specialist…administering any changes she saw fit.

Initially I had developed a relationship with the director of compliance and he was a great support for a while but he has since not been as involved because he has been preoccupied with other things. Frankly I believe he simply has too much on his plate for the time being to even start to address the issue.

The director of the campus I work at has offered to cover the cost of a Dale Carnegie training program for management and leadership skills which begins in March so I am hoping this may help with my situation.

Earning Respect:
There’s almost always more background to any difficult assignment than one can describe, even in a carefully composed question as was yours. This is even the case of your follow up. For example you say “we” who designed the new plan was your team. But does that mean all the directors in each campus? Buy-in usually hinges on being a participant in the process. Your plan got expert approval. That was wise.

You say Director of Campus 4 originally was cooperative, but that has diminished and now it appears he has too much on his plate. That’s what I meant when I suggested circumstances should be considered when there is a problem with non-compliance. His failure to communicate may relate to what else is expected of him.

Warren Buffet said Dale Carnegie’s speech making course did wonders for him, but I haven’t learned of what a Carnegie Management course has done for managers. Are you the one who will be enrolled in it? My general impression is that there are not many management skills that can remedy what simple assertiveness and persistence can’t. In your case, I doubt that such a course will generate the respect of your directors of loan default prevention you feel is lacking.

Rather, more likely making the system simple and psychically rewarding that come from your supporting each other are what will create respect for your oversight position. Achieving that might hinge on establishing a norm of a time to confer with each other on problems and successes—such as by Skype or a joint conference call each Friday after lunch or once a month.

You have been appointed to oversee because someone above had confidence in you or rather chose to appoint you so that he/she could say something was being done about the loan default situation. That often is a superior’s answer to trouble—putting it on someone else’s back. Whichever motivated your appointment, run with it joyfully and nurture the relationship with Upper Management. That can mean occasion informal communication and asking for advice. And more importantly, it can mean, as I suggested, seeking a sponsor for your career. There are few rewards more gratifying than finding someone who cares and thinks with and for you. Sometimes we find that with coworkers, superiors or from those outside who join you in making your little circle of the world more livable. I know of no more savvy management advice than that of my associate workplace doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe. She has a beautiful site of her own. You can access it by clicking on her name on our site or by google.
In addition, you will find insightful a Toastmaster’s winning speech by one of my former students, for whom I was his doctoral dissertation adviser—Dr. Rich Breiner.
Rich 2001 The Other Side of Fear
May your day go well in helping those in loan default prevention. –Dr. G