In many ways, talking to your boss’ boss is like interviewing: You usually have limited time to make your case, you can’t anticipate every question you’ll be asked, and no matter how well you actually did, you often walk away second-guessing yourself.
Of course, unlike interviewing, your opportunity to talk to the higher-ups is often unscheduled. You’ll find yourself walking in and riding the elevator up at the same time, or perhaps you’ll get pulled into a meeting in progress to discuss a current assignment. Which makes things a little bit scarier.
But, all it takes is a little prep work to ensure you feel more confident walking away from these conversations. Start here, by learning how to avoid three common mistakes professionals make when talking to the head honcho.
Mistake #1: Pitching Every Idea You’ve Ever Had
Time with your boss’ boss doesn’t grow on trees, which can make it very tempting to utilize those precious minutes to toss out every good idea you have rapid-fire or pitch your dream project. Two words: rookie mistake.
The best way to get the higher-ups to listen to you is to use the time you’re given productively. Meaning, if you’re called into a meeting on one project, don’t bring up another unless it’s pertinent. Do a great job answering the questions you’re asked, and in a follow-up email mention that you have other ideas you’d love to share when he has time.
Similarly, if you’re in a situation where your boss’ boss is visiting with you socially—say, you’re at an office happy hour and she brings up the local football team—don’t jump to change the subject and discuss work. Not only will your ideas fall on uninterested ears, but you’ll be squandering an opportunity to really connect with this person (which will be valuable later on, when you do get the chance to talk shop).
Mistake #2: Trying to One-Up Your Colleagues (and Your Boss)
Getting face time with the higher-ups is definitely a chance to prove how valuable you are to your company—and it’s definitely a big part of setting yourself up for great opportunities at work. But don’t do so at the expense of others. If, for example, when talking about a recent project, you downplay a colleague’s contributions or sell them as your own, you don’t look brilliant, you look like a credit hog (and you wouldn’t be pleased if a team member did that to you!).
Same rule applies to your boss. I’ve seen people try to downplay the role of their supervisor because they think it’ll put them on the fast track to promotion if they show they’re smarter than their boss. Not only will this sort of talk displease your boss when word gets back to him or her (and yes, it will), it’ll really make you seem unprofessional.
Now, if you’re talking to your boss’ boss specifically to report issues with your supervisor, that’s a bit of a different story—but still approach these conversations as professionally and honestly as possible. Saying, “I haven’t been able to get the approvals I need for a client because Bill’s been out this week,” will go a lot further than, “Bill’s been totally MIA, so I’ve had to bend over backwards to hold down the fort.”
Mistake #3: Being Too Humble
Thankfully, it’s not just the worst of times when you’ll find yourself one-on-one with the boss’ boss: it can also be the best of times. Interestingly, this can pose its own challenges: How do you take praise from a higher-up without coming off as that two-faced credit hog?
First, give credit where it’s due. If an army of interns or volunteers were invaluable, for example, say so. Not only will you look like a team player, but it will be understandable when you request their assistance in the future.
Just don’t give all the credit away. If you worked hard, say so. I recently laid out a plan to overhaul a website, and the woman I was working with said, “I can tell you spent a lot of time on this.” I began to answer, “Well, I redesigned a website once before, so it wasn’t too hard—” but then I course-corrected and said what I should have to start: “Thank you. I did, and I’m so glad you like it.” Remember, if you want others to acknowledge your hard work, you must do so as well.
You never know when you'll get the opportunity to speak with your boss’ boss, but you can be prepared when it comes along. Just relax and keep these tips in mind, and you’ll do just fine.