In theory, clarity around decision-rights solves a multitude of working relationship problems. In practice, over-reaching bosses, by definition, are prone to over-reach. Thus, the only way to mitigate the mission-crippling risk of an executive chair, operating partner or over-reaching boss is to build and maintain a two-way trusting relationship over time.

Let’s talk about the level of risk, the five-levels of decision rights, and what it takes to build and maintain trust.

Mission-Crippling Risk

As an executive onboarding into a new role, look at organizational risk, role risk and personal risk to come up with an overarching assessment. Our onboarding risk calculator can help you do that and suggests you follow triage guidelines once you’ve assessed your risk.

  • If the risk level is relatively low, things should go well if you get a head start; manage your message; set direction and build your team; and then sustain momentum and deliver results over your first 100-days and beyond.
  • If there’s a manageable level of risk, follow the same prescriptions as if the risk level were low while keeping your eyes open for the particular risks of your situation.
  • If there are potentially mission-crippling issues with this role for you, you will need to address them before you start to reduce your likelihood of failure.
  • If the risk is extreme or insurmountable, consider walking away or at least having a back-up plan.

The existence of an executive chair or operating partner if you’re the CEO, or any over-reaching boss is a mission-crippling issue in its own right. You can’t do your job unless your boss trusts you to do your job and lets you do it. It’s impossible to build a trusting relationship with the people working with you and for you if your boss is second-guessing your decisions.

Accept that no executive chair, operating partner, or over-reaching boss ever sees themselves as the problem. They think they’re helping, guiding and protecting you – sometimes from yourself.

Decision Rights

The clearer you can be about who makes which decisions with whose input, the better will be your working relationship with your boss. Many find this decision-level framework useful:

Level 1 – Boss decides on their own without your input – Things like your compensation and politically sensitive things from which you need to be shielded. (The less of the latter, the better.)

Level 2 – Boss decides with your input. These decisions generally involve the allocation of resources beyond your span of control. For example, if you’re the CEO, you’ll need your boss or the board’s agreement to major strategic changes like mergers and acquisitions and divestitures.

Level 3 – Shared decisions. Nightmare. Avoid as much as possible. Shared decisions across peers require unanimous consent – tough to get. Shared decisions with your boss are really level 2 decisions.

Level 4 – You decide with boss’s input. The more of these, the better. You’re almost always better off getting your boss’s perspective on the way to your decision. Asking for it builds trust.

Level 5 – You decide on your own without boss’s input. These are time-sensitive tactical decisions you just need to make. Always a good idea to inform your boss afterwards about these.

Building and Maintaining Trust

Trust is earned over time, not negotiated in advance.

It is in the best interests of your executive chair, operating partner, or boss for you to succeed. If you’re one of the 40% of new leaders that fail in their first eighteen months, your board and/or boss will be hurt almost as much as you.

They and their colleagues think part of their job is to help you succeed. They want to be involved in helping you make the right decisions. They want to help manage programs or projects to give you increased leverage. This is why you should start by assuming positive intent on their parts.

And you should remember the best way to build and maintain trust is to be trustworthy. It is in your best interest to help them help you succeed.

  • Clarify decision rights.
  • Don’t get upset about level 1 decisions.
  • Help them make level 2 decisions.
  • Invite, welcome and value their input into level 4 decisions.
  • Inform them about level 5 decisions.

And be flexible, evolving decision rights as your mutual levels of trust increase.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #639) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan