Talk To Your Boss

A consistent theme at business school and throughout the business community is communication. John Kotter wrote what is largely considered the definitive work on organizational change and emphasized communicating to the point of overcommunicating. And while it is easy to nod our heads and say “of course”, it’s a little more difficult, especially for us low or mid level managers, to come up with communication ideas that make an impact. Well, here’s one that anyone can do and it will make an impact on your career: Talk to your boss!

A year ago I was promoted to a Program Manager role. I had talked to some people at my firm and expressed an interest in moving into management. An opportunity came up where an existing PM was going out on maternity and they needed someone to fill in for two months. I jumped at the chance and accepted the role, even if it was only going to be for two months. I moved divisions within my firm and reported to a Division Manager for the first time. My new boss was a good guy; everyone seemed to like and respect him. I was looking forward to working underneath him and learning my new role. We setup a call for him to fill me in and get me started. The phone call lasted five minutes. That was it. I was now a PM and on my own.

Over the course of the next two months, I worked hard, learned a lot, and did some good things. The person I was filling in for never came back and I was offered the job full time. I continued to learn my role and progress. But I quickly learned that my boss was a pretty hands off guy. He trusted me to do things well, and that was good, but we rarely spoke. When we did, we often had good conversations, but they were just few and far between. I bet he called me about five times in six months to check in. I kept going with no problem and away we went.

Then a few months back, I decided that I really wanted to have some more interaction with him. Again, he’s a smart guy and I thought I could learn a lot from him. So I setup a weekly tagup call with him on Friday afternoons. And then I called him. We talked about the contracts I’m managing, about personnel, about what’s happening at our firm, etc. After a few times, he began to look forward to our weekly talks and he would call me instead of waiting for me to call him. Then we started talking about career development and our goals. I discovered that he is ambitious as well and he wants to do great things at our company. We talked about my career development and where I want to go. These are really good conversations that don’t happen unless you first develop a relationship.

A week ago, we both met with his boss and again we talked about career development. My boss recommended some training and skills improvement. So we move forward.

So while I was developing a relationship with my boss and having weekly conversations with him, I also setup weekly tagup calls with my direct reports that I don’t work with on a daily basis so I can find out how they are doing, what they need from me, etc. Guess what happened? Some of my people kept the calls and some didn’t. It’s easy to do. I’m busy. They’re busy. There’s project work to do that gets in the way of things like that. So it slipped a little. I found that as these things slipped a little, I became less engaged with that employee. I knew less about them. I was less able to help them achieve their goals. I began to think about what my boss must think about his people when he loses communication with them. It’s not that he doesn’t want to talk to us or that he thinks we aren’t doing a good job. It’s just that when things get busy, it’s hard to keep communication and relationships strong. And unless there is constant effort at communicating, the relationship erodes.

So, here’s a step by step plan for talking to your boss (or your direct reports):

  1. Pick a consistent time and get on his/her calendar. I chose Friday afternoon because that’s the end of the week and we are winding down. It’s also the same day I chose to do more of my strategic thinking so I’m in that mindset. Pick a day that works for you.
  2. Prepare for your call. Come up with two or three things your boss needs to know. How is your project? Any issues? Any challenges you’ve faced?
  3. Make the first move! Call your boss at the appointed time.
  4. Keep the calls short, at least at first. I setup a 15 minute call to begin. Now we generally go 30 minutes, but start short.
  5. Stay consistent. Call your boss every week at the appointed time.
  6. Ask your boss if there’s anything you can do to help him. This question will lead to some interesting conversations

And here’s the benefits you’ll get out of doing this:

  1. You’ll learn things from your boss that will help you in your current assignment. Remember, before they became your boss, they were in your position. They will have insights into things that you didn’t think about. So you’ll learn how to manage your assignment better. Plus, you won’t have to guess anymore. You’ll know exactly how your boss likes things.
  2. You’ll develop a better working relationship with your boss. Of course this is a good thing.
  3. You’ll gain the respect of your boss. He will begin to view you as someone who thinks about how to improve and then follows through with things. I’m convinced that rarely do people call up their bosses to talk over things. So you’ll immediately stand out from the crowd and he will begin to view you differently.
  4. You’ll develop trust. Bosses carry around a lot of information they don’t always know what to do with. You’ll become a trusted member of his team and he’ll begin to share more of this information with you. You’ll become a more valued member of their team.
  5. When reviews come around, your boss will have much better information to rely on. He’s been talking to you all year. He will have a much better view of your performance than if he was just observing from afar.

So there’s something you can put into practice today that will improve your career outlook and your job performance. Give it a try. Give it three months. I’m betting you’ll see a major diference.