How High Performers Manage Their Boss
Whether you have a great boss, a terrible boss, or a well-intended (but overwhelmed) boss, the relationship you have with your boss has a major impact on your career trajectory.
I’ve coached many leaders who have good relationships with some of their direct reports and challenging relationships with others. The boss is the same, yet their relationships with their direct reports varies, sometimes wildly. Often times, the difference is rooted in the intentionality and thoughtfulness of their subordinates.
Here are four best practices high performers embody to create successful working relationships with their boss:
- Leverage your boss’s strengths. Being aware of their strengths (and their weaknesses) helps you optimize your time together. Asking for your boss’s help with something they’re strong in gives you their best thinking. High performers know when that’s possible and when to find other sources of support. For example, I think of myself as a good brainstorming partner. When my team comes to me with a new idea or challenge, I’m the first one to whip out the whiteboard and dive in. Contrast that with someone asking me to proofread something important. That’s typically going to be a frustrating experience for both of us.
- Confirm prioritization. Most bosses are overwhelmed. On top of leading their direct reports, many of them have their own deliverables and metrics to hit. This overwhelms and often results in a confusing blur of priorities. Bosses (even the most well-intended) forward new assignments, requests, and projects to their high performers. They’re often unaware of how much those things add up or how they may detract from current priorities; bosses just want them to get done. High performers make a practice of regularly calibrating with their boss as to what is important, what can wait, and what matters most. This creates a more strategic partnership relationship.
- Don’t be afraid to (kindly) tell them they’re wrong. Just as it’s part of the boss’s job to keep you from making mistakes, you having your boss’s back is also good for your relationship. But . . . sometimes this takes a little bit of finesse. Ask yourself, how would you want them to handle it if the roles were reversed? If think your boss is wrong, you don’t want to be accusatory, because there might be something you don’t know. Just have a short conversation. You can say something like- “You know I’ve got your back, and it occurred to me that I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this possible issue before you went forward.”
- Be a serving leader. Much has been written about servant leadership; a philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve those they are leading (vs the more traditional top-down power approach). I agree with this in theory. The primary job of leadership is to support and nurture those they are leading. The challenge is, servant leadership is typically spoken about in a single direction: from boss to employee. And over time, it can begin to feel like indentured servitude. Instead, I prefer the word “serving”, which to me implies you serve others when it’s appropriate. The most successful boss-employee relationships embody elements of serving in both directions. For example, if you know your boss has a big meeting with her boss coming up and they’re going to review the new product line, offer to help your boss practice, or do some of the background research. This helps your boss be successful, and it also helps you build an authentic relationship.
Boss management isn’t about manipulating your boss or trying to puppeteer the situation; it’s authentically bringing strategic thinking, support, and empathy to one of your most important working relationships.