Mary Lippitt was a new hire with a game-changer of an idea.
She thought she was on to something that would revolutionize an inefficient process — and set her up for success in the process. But, if not for some well-timed advice from her mentor, Lippitt’s good intentions would have led to a giant mistake.
Lippitt was 31 years old at the time and working in human resources for a county government in Florida, overseeing employee relationships and training. Immediately, she spotted a number of inefficiencies in how government employees were reimbursed for taking continuing education classes.
So she hatched a plan to make those reimbursements faster and more standardized in a process that applied uniformly to unionized and non-unionized employees.
She pitched it to her immediate supervisor, who took the “Don’t bother me; just do it” approach. So Lippitt made an appointment to present her ideas to a top executive, her boss’s supervisor’s boss.
A few days before that appointment, Lippitt mentioned the plan to her mentor, an executive in the same building but a different department. She expected praise. Instead, he asked her a question: “Did you dig into the history of this existing policy?”
“No”, Lippitt replied.
“Then you may want to rethink this”, he said. “First, you’re proposing a serious overhaul of an existing system. Second, you’re pitching it to the person who developed the plan a few years ago.”
Lippitt was stunned. And embarrassed.
“I was ready to present it, thinking I was going to get accolades and ‘attaboy’ kind of things,” Lippitt told Bizwomen. “(My mentor) saved me from making a major faux pas.”
Now an executive coach and consultant, Lippitt has worked with hundreds of leaders, from Fortune 500 executives to top Pentagon officials, and she’s conducted research on thousands of people to study how they make choices. When she discusses the importance of context in business decisions — and of having a mentor — she often comes back to that pre-presentation wake-up call.
Lippitt says her first mistake was assuming that logic dictated all business decisions. Rather, rational analysis is just one of many factors that impact policy change.
“Sometimes altruistic intentions are out of touch with reality,” she said.
The experience taught Lippitt the value of seeking context and of bouncing ideas off people in other departments. It also taught her about the importance of “managing up,” or enhancing your manager’s work. Make your boss look good, and you’ll be better off, she said.
As for her big ideas: They eventually did get implemented.
“But I introduced them piecemeal, rather than as a grand overhaul,” Lippitt said. And she let her boss’s supervisor’s boss — the person she could have sabotaged her career in front of — feel like he was a player in the process.
“I went in and just started telling the big boss, ‘You know, we’re having some trouble and complaints about getting refunds in a timely manner,’” Lippitt recalled. “‘Do you want me to look into this? Do you have any thoughts for how to smooth this out?’”
She started with the biggest pain points, asked for permission and then let the positive feedback filter up to the top executives. Then, she could introduce another idea.
The result? Lippitt got several promotions and doubled her salary in four years.