HYCS #12 – Where is the Decision-Maker?

 HYCS #12 –Where’s the Decision-Maker?

Nothing wastes more time than talking to a gatekeeper rather than a decision-maker.    

Word Count: 910

Reading Time:  4 minutes

Assignment Time:  Negligible

You can feel and hear the difference between a gatekeeper and the decision-maker.

It may take astute questioning, but the decision-maker can tell you the result she wants for the business, or team or organization.  Even better, they can tell you which specific part of the result is the most important:

“We’ve got to raise morale on this team.  People are complaining constantly”

“We need to increase our market share by 5% by Q3.”

“My employees are missing too much work time to go to medical appointments.  I need to know what I can do to change that.”

Gatekeepers can only repeat what they’ve heard the decision-maker say about what’s important.   They are not in a position to ask the kinds of questions that a consultant asks.  If they tried, it would just be weird:

“Boss, if you had to choose just one goal – and I’m asking you to – which one would you pick?”

“Smithers, are you trying to tell me you have too much work?”


“Imagine that this project succeeds beyond what you can imagine.  How would you describe its effect?”

“Jackson, are you angling for a raise already?  We haven’t even started this project.  Get back to work!”

If you are talking only to the gatekeeper, you’re going to fail. 

Recognizing the Gatekeeper

The biggest sign you’re dealing with a gatekeeper is that they’ve handled all the minutiae and logistics without having a clear idea of what it’s all for.  They may even have lots of suggestions about what you should do.  Because they lack clarity about the desired outcome, you will too.  You may find it difficult to make a clear recommendation.  After all, when the destination isn’t clear, one road is as good as another. 

To the gatekeeper, the desired result is simply another thing on their checklist.  They have no idea of the transformational power of a clear outcome.

Gatekeeper’s have valuable information for you, and can give you access to people and information you need.  There are 3 things they cannot do and each of them is critical to the success of the project:

1. Form your relationship with the decision-maker.

2. Elicit a clear destination (result) from the decision maker like you can.

3. Apply your expertise to that information in a way that transforms how you get there.

Getting to the Decision-Maker

The gatekeeper is in a tough spot.  Their job is to protect their boss from people like you.  If they let you get to the decision-maker, they’ve failed.  When confronted with a gatekeeper, I do three things:

1. I tell them precisely how keeping me from the decision-maker will guarantee failure.

2. I engage them in solving my problem.

3. I let them know I have their back.

Working directly with the decision-maker is the difference between good work and hellish work.  It’s the difference between a good and hellish meeting too*.   I cannot overstate how important it is to work with the decision-maker to clarify what success looks like.  With that clarity, the rest falls into place.  Without it, you are blind.

(*In next week’s email, I’ll get into the way a clear result leads naturally to the correct level of participation (not so much the project bogs down, not so little it never catches fire), and the follow through that comes from commitment rather than its weaker cousin, “buy-in.”  I’ll probably use shorter sentences too.)

Your Assignment:

Start listening for gatekeepers and identifying the final decision-maker.  (It may surprise you how many high-level executives are gatekeepers.)  That’s all for now.

As inspiration, here’s an actual conversation I had recently with a gatekeeper.  I was being hired to facilitate a meeting, and all my clever questioning was not eliciting a clear meeting outcome.

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“Who is leading the meeting?”

“Our CFO.”

“Great.  When can I talk to your CFO?”

“He’s asked me to pull this meeting together for him.”

“Ah.  Well, you’re doing a fabulous job so far.   The logistics are per all in place, the invitation, the food – the entire setting is perfect.  We’re just missing the return on his investment the CFO is looking for.”

“Oh, er…”

“We can’t determine that without him.

“I can ask him.  Tell me the questions.”

“You could ask him, that’s true.  There is something you can’t do for the CFO and I:  Have our relationship.  That relationship will affect the questions I ask and the answers he gives.  The success of the meeting hinges on getting this right.”

“Well, yes, it’s just that…”

“Please tell me what’s on your mind.  You can be direct.”

“He’s a busy man and he’s asked me to handle this.  He hates being…oh, this is awkward…

“Sold to by over-eager but slightly clueless external consultants?

“OMG – yes!”

“Who doesn’t?  I don’t want to overstep, or get you in hot water.  And it’s crucial I talk with him.   How can we work this out?”

“Leave it to me.  I know just what to do.”

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My meeting with the CFO went well.  Turns out he was so anxious about wasting everyone’s time he hadn’t thought much about the results he wanted.  We had to work hard to uncover them.  It was worth it.  The meeting was “The best one we’ve ever had.”