Tutorial: How to Manage a Good Boss

Last Updated Dec 21, 2009 6:51 AM EST

Congratulations. You have a boss who is essentially reasonable. She doesn't yell, belittle, ignore or do all the other annoying things that make life miserable.

That's good news, because the most important task you face in your career is managing your boss. Do it well, and you'll get better raises, promotions, assignments, and perks. You'll also be able to do a better job and have a more positive impact on the rest of the company.

Flub this part of the job, though, and you'll end up in the business equivalent of the boonies or (worse) on the "who to fire" short list during the next downsize.

The key to managing your boss is simple: treat your boss like a valued customer -- only do it backwards. Here's how:

NOTE: If you've got a BAD BOSS, you need to read "Tutorial: How to Manage a BAD Boss"

STEP #1: Be The Right Person
Favored employees have five basic attributes that make them particularly attractive to their bosses. Those attributes are:

  • Credibility. Follow through on assignments and do what you say you're going to. If you want your boss to trust you, your word has to carry weight.
  • Professionalism. Bosses appreciate individuals who are serious about what they do and willing to take the time to achieve a deep understanding of their craft.
  • Integrity. The test of integrity is whether you'll take a stand, even when it's unpopular with your boss. The boss has the final decision, but it's your job to make sure it's the right one.
  • Caring. Bosses direct reports who care about them. Show that you're truly concerned about what the boss has to say by responding with solutions rather than complaints or excuses.
  • Knowledge. Bosses need people who have unique expertise. You don't have to be a pro at everything, but you do need a specific area of knowledge that your boss values.
If you lack these attributes, your first task is to either develop them, or at least develop the appearance of having them.

STEP #2: Discover What's Expected.
In every job, there are the stated expectations, and then there are the unstated ones. For example, sales professionals always have specific sales goals, usually reinforced by their bonus and commission structures. You'd think that would be enough, but in fact there are always other expectations, some of which might be unstated. For example, a sales rep might be expected to spend some time each week building the pipeline for products that haven't been released yet, and thus don't generate bonus or commissions.

For people who work outside of sales, expectations are usually even more tenuous. Many workers have a job description, but end up performing tasks that have little or nothing to do with the written list. In many enviornments, goals are set on a yearly basis -- and then the assigned activities end up having no bearing whatsoever upon those goals. The result is usually a yearly review that's more surreal than realistic.

Because of this, it's absolutely critical to find out what you are actually expected to do and how you will be measured. This may take some time because your boss may not have thought all of that through very clearly. However, since we're dealing with a basically "good" boss, she'll want to set appropriate expectations, so keep working on her until you get the answers you need.

STEP #3: Keep her informed
The secret fear of every boss is that employees are screwing up and either not telling anyone or (even worse) aren't aware there's a problem.

If you're in sales, it's pretty easy to keep your boss informed. You simply provide regular updates on your pipeline and make sure you keep your CRM records current. Whenever you meet with your boss, have a good handle on how the status of your various sales efforts and make realistic assessments of what is likely to close, and what's more likely to fall out of the pipeline.

If you're not in sales, then you've got a little more work to do. To reassure themselves, bosses may sometimes pick an aspect of an employee's job and begin randomly asking penetrating questions about the details. If you answer these queries with grace and aplomb, the boss assumes you're competent. Hesitate or evade, and the boss may assume all your work is slipshod. Therefore, you must always be prepared to provide updates on your progress.

You also need to keep your bosses peers informed. You may think you have a one-on-one relationship with your boss, but you're actually part of a crowd of people-from your peers to your boss's peers to your boss's bosses-who influence the boss's decision-making. Their comments and gossip will inevitably affect your boss's opinion of you and your work, so you want to be certain that, if they're not actively singing your praises, at least they're reading from the same hymnal.

Create a list of everyone who carries weight with your boss. Include their job title and whatever you know about their background and role inside your firm. Now craft a variation of your core message that positions what you're doing as helpful to each person. Then use that to frame any conversations you have with them.

STEP #4: Coach the Coach
This is a "manage your boss" technique that I've used for years.

One of the most important functions that a boss performs is coaching employees to become better employees. Since your boss is a fundamentally good boss, she'll want to do a good job at this.

Unfortunately, everybody has slightly different ways of learning, which means that boss needs to adapt their coaching to fit the needs of the individual. And that's almost impossible unless the individuals speak up and explain exactly how they need to be coached.

For example, I find it very difficult to work effectively with an editor (my equivalent of a boss) when drafts come back with negative comments like "this doesn't work" or "bad wording". On the other hand, the same comments, when stated as neutral or positive suggestions like "please clarify this point" or "would be stronger if reworded" immediately motivate me to work harder to make the piece better.

The same was true when I was in business. Every time I had a new boss, once I'd determined that he or she was fundamentally decent, I'd take the time to explain what motivates me and how I like to be managed. In every case, it helped to develop a better and stronger working relationship.

STEP #5: Do Your Research
You must do more than convince the boss that you're competent... you need to make yourself invaluable. To do this, you need deliver what the boss wants, ideally even before she knows he wants it. Over time, of course, you can observe and learn, but fast-track the process by researching the boss's career and asking questions that will help you understand his way of thinking. This activity has a side-benefit-your boss will be flattered that you're interested.

Use the Internet, the grapevine, and the boss's admin to learn about the boss's work history. Then, when appropriate, find opportunities (such as during lunch or offsite meetings) to express a healthy curiosity about your boss's experience. Once you know some background, ask questions like:

  • "I was on the web learning more about our industry and I noticed that you presented at the [name] conference. What kind of response did you get?"
  • "Your admin mentioned you used to work for [name of firm]. What was the most valuable thing you learned from that experience?"
  • "I hear you used to work in the [name] industry. What are the main differences between the way that industry runs and the way this one runs?"
Try thinking of your boss as a customer, and get curious. The more you understand what's going on the better you'll know how to work together.

STEP #6: Gradually Build Rapport
The ideal situation is to have a boss who looks out for your interests during difficult times. This protectiveness is nurtured when the boss thinks of you not just as a competent contributor but as a kindred spirit. If you want a more expansive and resilient relationship with the boss, cultivate an interest in something that also interests the boss.

Ideally, this should be an interest or activity that segues nicely into the work experience. For example, if your boss likes to talk business while playing golf, learning to play--and enjoy the game--will inevitably bring you closer.

Of course, you need to do this without seeming smarmy, so if there truly isn't any commonality of interest and nothing on which to grow one, don't try to force it. But if there is some compatibility there, you'd be crazy not nurture it.

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