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The relationship with your boss is probably the most important relationship you have at work.
Boss management can stimulate better performance, improve your working life, job satisfaction, and workload. Give your boss a hand and reap the rewards.
When we think of managing someone, we usually think of managing our team members or subordinates. The above title appeared for the first time a few years ago in a Harvard Business Review article written by two well known socio-psychologists.
Their argument was that in modern companies, subordinates are not solely dependent on their bosses, but that today's complexity requires interdependence: the boss needs her team as well.
I have the vantage point of being an adviser to top management, a CEO, and now as Co-Director of the PED program at IMD. In addition, I have been involved in the restructuring of a major international company, which involves some 12,000 people and 12 hierarchical levels.
In order to unleash the energies and get closer to customers, we divided the group into 250 'small companies' of some 50 people each and of three hierarchical levels. To change the mindset, we organised a 20-day management seminar, during which we discussed the challenge of how to deal with bosses, who in the old structure, tended to hamper change.
The whole process forced me to crystallize my observations and previous experience and test them with the 250 managers. I have grouped the results into ten rules that try to answer some common questions asked by managers with respect to managing their bosses, with the aim of helping the relationship become more effective, foster faster decisions, better decisions and more trust.
1. Decisions: If you do not want a 'no' or procrastination, give him/her a hand
Your boss has other subordinates, other decisions to make. Thus, her (for simplicity, we use 'her' from now on in this article) best bet, if she is pressed for a decision, will be to say no. No, it is too risky; no, we do not have enough evidence; no, it is the wrong timing; no, it is off strategy, et cetera.
2. Manage her time: You may represent only 1% of her problems, don't make it as if it is 100%.
Yes, you have preoccupations, problems to solve and issues to tackle. However, while your time is entirely devoted to them, do not expect your boss's time to be also.
3. An opinion: If you ask for her opinion, she will always have one.
Rare are the bosses who, when asked for their advice or their decision, will use the psychological ping-pong approach of retuning the question to the person who asked.
And their opinion may not always be that of a genius or a visionary. However, once given, the opinion becomes a constraint: was it an order? So, if you don't want your boss's opinion to thwart your achievements, to slow the speed of decision-making, or cloud the viewpoint, then don't ask for it. Best of all, don't ask if you don't need her opinion.
4. Information: It is not data.
Turn grapes into wine: you are supposed to analyze the results of a market survey, and not be the mailman who passes the thick document full of statistics to your boss. So be selective; be visual; group the data; bring out what is essential. Data overload creates stress, which in turn can create denial, rejection, and numbness. As a manager, you are paid to collect the grapes (data), and turn them into wine, i.e. useful information.
5. Problems: Don't just come with problems, come also with solutions.
Good bosses hate two kinds of behavior. The courtesan who always comes to tell you how great you are and the pyromaniac/fireman who comes to tell you "There is a huge problem" and then says "but don't worry, I will solve it!"
There is also a third kind, the monkey transferor. She has a problem and she puts it on your shoulders, rather than bringing a solution or at least some options.
Problems usually have several aspects. It is usually a gap between an objective and the result; there are options to close the gap; there is a choice of one option to be made; key tasks, dates, people and resources needed must be defined.
On which of those steps in problem solving do you want your boss's input? Just be clear on what input you want rather than come with the stressful -- "I have a problem�" and throw the monkey.
6. Assumptions: Do not assume she knows as much as you do, but assume she can understand; so educate her. Please help, you are the expert. You spend all of your time and that of your team on the issue. You live with data, pressure points and levers; your boss does not. She does not know more than you do.
Most senior executives are even dangerous when they get involved in making micro-decisions, as their point of reference is often not the current one but rather the situation they knew when they were junior managers.
If you need her perspective, it is because it is broader; she has a better sense for inter-relationships with other parts of the organisation. You have two options.
7. Delegations: Constantly test the waters.
It is not always easy to define ex ante what is delegated to a person. Some companies prefer to use the principle of subsidiary rather than the principle of delegation: the principle of subsidiary stipulates that you can do everything except the following list, whereas in the principle of delegation you stipulate, "you cannot do anything except�"
Whichever is used, there will always be some doubt whether you have or do not have the delegation. You have two options: either you play it safe by always asking your boss's opinion. This can lead to paralysis, bottlenecks and your own demise, as your boss will think you are unable to take responsibility.
Or you assume too much, take decisions and learn after the fact that it was not yours to decide. In between, there is the 'test the waters' strategy especially for things or areas, domains or steps that are unprecedented.
8. Promises: Do not promise what you cannot deliver, and avoid surprises, trust is at stake.
Trust does not develop overnight and depends a lot on the predictability of the other person: what she says and does, how often she is living up to or not living up to her statements. In the same way, you will not fully trust your boss if she changes her mind too often or says things contrary to what you were told the last time.
You also want to avoid being seen as unreliable by not delivering on what you promise or surprising her with bad news without forewarning.
Do not promise dates for finishing projects you cannot handle. If you see that too much is asked of you, sit down and re-discuss priorities before proceeding, rather than becoming yourself a bottleneck. Involve your boss in the process, so it becomes a common priority.
Avoid bad surprises. If your job is to be in charge of a particular area, then it is also to be in charge of bad results and improving them.
Involve your boss in discussing and evaluating the risks, agreeing on key lead indicators that you will both share, so that neither you nor he will be surprised. For instance, whereas sales are not a good lead indicator, future orders or bookings can be. Cash in the bank is not, whereas good cash flow three months in advance is.
9. Differences: Manage differences in culture.
Sometimes at IMD we use a questionnaire called the Power Map to help participants identify their own culture (i.e. values they cherish, leading to certain behaviors), to identify other executives' profiles and discuss consequences on communication and leadership in a team.
To simplify, the four main types of profiles that our survey identified are:
Of course, in managing your boss you should know her personal inclination, as well as your personal bias. If you are process oriented, you will tend to present issues in a systematic and orderly fashion, with pros and cons, chronology of tasks, etc.
If your boss is the action type, she could be bored. So in that case an executive summary, emphasizing the key actions and results would be a handy starting point.
10. Trust: Don't be sloppy in your documentation. It undermines trust.
By making the assumption that she will check what we write or say anyway, and that she will make changes, we sometimes tend to be sloppy in our writing. Tables are not finished, text is not re-read, places we are going to are not visited beforehand, spelling is not checked, and information is missing...
By not finalizing your facts, arguments, memos, spelling, supporting documents, etc., you can be sure some things will get changed, mistakes corrected. And soon you will be asked to show more facts and figures, and you will see more changes, more amendments. Soon all the delegation you had will be gone.
Better work between a boss and his subordinate is not just a matter of leadership. It also has to do with boss 'management', which can stimulate better performance, faster decision making and accomplishment of more � by both parties.
Jacques Horovitz is Professor of Service Strategy, Service Marketing & Service Management at IMD, one of the world's leading business schools.
Published with the kind permission of The Smart Manager, India's first world class management magazine, available bi-monthly.More Specials
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