Don’t count on your boss to manage your career growth.
Your job and career success are too important to leave to your boss.Also, your boss probably isn’t a great manager.So you have to manage your boss.
Remember: You are the CEO of your career. And, as CEO, you can’t leave something as important as your success in your job and career to someone else — namely, your boss.
If you want to succeed, you have to make your boss happy with your performance. And, to do that — and to be sure that your boss is actually happy and not just “being nice” — you will likely have to manage your boss.
Specifically, you are going to have to:
Understand what your boss wants you to do and how your boss will evaluate your performance
Manage your boss’s expectations
Develop a communication and feedback cadence and work style that works well for both of you
Regularly check in to understand how you can continue to progress
If you have a great boss, your boss will take care of the mechanics of this — by clearly setting expectations, agreeing on reasonable deadlines, inviting your feedback and questions, and letting you know frequently how you are doing.
Unfortunately, many (most?) bosses are not great bosses.
(This is not necessarily because they don’t want to be — but because being a great boss is hard.)
One area in which many (most?) bosses are not great is communication. For example, your boss might like you and want you to like them, so they might not want to upset or offend you by being super-direct about where you’re falling short. Or, like you, they might be busy and stressed (bosses have bosses, too — and lots of work and complicated lives), so they might not be communicating frequently and explicitly enough. Or they might be inexperienced and not know what is and isn’t reasonable to expect. Or they might not recognize that you have great strengths but are doing the wrong job — and are therefore struggling when you could be crushing it.
And so on.
All of this means: You don’t want to leave managing your job and career to your boss, because your boss has other priorities and might not be great at it. And if your boss is not great at it, they might blame their disappointment on… you!
So, here’s how to manage your boss:
First, interview your boss until you understand clearly and in detail what they want you to do — and write it down. Create a one-page mission statement. Describe your goal in a sentence and add bullets on any specific tasks, projects, and deliverables. Give this to your boss and ask for feedback. If you are confused or unclear about anything, clarify. If it seems like too much work, say so — and then work with your boss to rank objectives and tasks by priority. (BONUS POINTS: Understand how your boss is evaluated — in other words, what his or her goals are. And think about how you can help your boss succeed).
Set regular meetings with an agenda (that you write and maintain), and solicit constructive and detailed feedback. Do this at whatever frequency makes sense, but at least once a month. Base your agenda on your mission statement. Update your boss on each major deliverable and project. Ask for feedback. Don’t bask in pride if your boss just says something vague like “You’re doing great.” Instead, press for details. “What, specifically, am I doing great? And what can I do better?”
Manage your boss’s expectations by underpromising and overdelivering. We all want to make our bosses happy by promising to deliver whatever they ask for whenever they want it. Resist the temptation to do that. Instead, be realistic — and build in buffers on quantity, quality, and time. Then deliver better and more than you said you would, faster than you said you would. This will continually leave your boss positively surprised, which is way better than disappointed.
Review and update your “mission statement” regularly with your boss — with an eye to your future. Solicit specific feedback on what and how you have done. Then, focus on what’s next. Try to work on projects that will help develop your skills and experience and get you where you want to go. (As you do your job, you should be developing ideas and a plan for what you want to do next. Don’t leave that to your boss!)
This may feel awkward at first, but you (and your boss) will get used to it. And if your boss isn’t great at communication and organization, they will be grateful you are handling it for them.
Some or all of this might not go smoothly, by the way. Despite your efforts to understand and deliver what your boss wants, your boss may be so flaky that they just can’t set and stick to realistic goals. Or they may be moody or mean. Or they may be going through something personally and taking it out on you. Or they may have any one of a range of other annoying “boss flaws.”
One common and annoying kind of boss flaw is “Idea Guy” — the boss who constantly throws ideas at you and expects you to act on them, apparently without remembering that you are already killing yourself trying to implement all the ideas they had yesterday, last month, etc.
I’m very familiar with Idea Guy, because he’s me.
When I was CEO of Business Insider, I used to drive members of my team crazy with all of my ideas. I thought I was being helpful and smart and a good boss by telling them how we could be better. And because they wanted me to think they were doing a good job — and didn’t yet know how to manage me — they would usually nod and say thank you and rush off to (I thought) implement my ideas.
But then, one day, one of my team members — Business Insider’s former President, Julie Hansen — realized that, to maintain her sanity and save our company, she had to manage me.
So, in our weekly one-on-one meeting, after I had tossed out yet another slew of ideas, Julie said something like:
“Those sound like great ideas, Henry! I would love to implement them. But I’m already working on the last dozen mission-critical projects we agreed on. And I don’t have room or time to take on anything more.
“So… How much of a priority are these new ideas? And are they ideas… or orders? Are you telling me to stop doing the things we agreed on last week to make room to do these new things? And, if you are telling me that, which should I stop?”
Well, of course, that was a cold bucket of water in the face for me and my new ideas. But it was the right move for Julie and the company. After we went through the projects Julie was working on, I realized that none of my new ideas were better or more important than what she was already doing. I was also reminded that Julie was already working really hard to implement ideas that I had forgotten. So, I filed all my exciting new ideas away for the future.
That is managing your boss.
If you want to succeed, you will have to do it.