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Take Control of Your Career-How to Get the Boss on Your Side


Last updated 8/5/2010

Establish a plan from day one
When you start a new job, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you were hired to do, because you asked probing questions during the interview. The challenges, goals and tasks should be defined as clearly as possible. This is a way of assuring that you and the boss really are in agreement. How many times have we heard, “The job turned out to be something else—it’s not what they said it would be during the interview”? Or, “I was hired for one role, but three months later the department was reorganized and I was reassigned.” It’s very true that you can get blindsided—but it’s also very true that you need to be proactive in managing the agenda that will keep your career on track.

Obviously, you and your boss need to talk, and the conversation must be structured. For good bosses, this comes naturally. But other bosses are unaccustomed to careful planning and goal setting. They might assume that everyone understands what needs to be done, based on the conversation during the interviewing process. In fact, however, everyone needs to come to a consensus about tasks and desired outcomes. This is known as the performance management process: a process for reaching goals and—may I be so bold to say?—for managing your boss, especially if he or she doesn’t possess superior management skills. This exercise can help stack the odds in favor of making the job evolve to your advantage, in terms of satisfaction and career progression.

Your plan should be your constant reference point
The performance management process can be traced to the visionary philosophies of Peter Drucker, who advanced the concept of Management by Objectives (MBO). The mechanics of MBO include a one-on-one conference with your boss to survey the challenges and goals that lie ahead, usually for the next year. Drucker introduced the acronym SMART, which can guide you in determining your objectives for the year.

Getting “SMART”
“S” is for Specific. Your objectives should be very well defined, with you and the boss agreeing on the desired outcomes. This implies, of course, that the objectives will be known. Reflecting on several decades of experience, Drucker observed: “MBO is just another tool. It is not the great cure for management inefficiency. MBO works if you know the objectives, and 90 percent of the time you don’t.”

“M” is for measurable. Will you be able to quantify what you’ve done in a meaningful way? That is, do you and the boss know how outcomes will be evaluated from a metrics point of view? How will success be measured?

A” is for Achievable. This speaks to the environment that you work in. Do you have the staff, tools, and resources necessary to meet the objectives agreed upon? Analyzing the “A” also represents another opportunity to review the fundamental question, “Is this what I signed on for?”

“R” is for Realistic. You won’t advance your case or your career if you agree to goals that are beyond your reach. If you are treated as a respected member of the team, your objectives should  include your input and suggestions—and your understanding of the job.

“T” is for Timing. Whether you’re planning for the year or for six months, there may be multiple deadlines involved. Everyone should understand when the deliverables will be delivered.

Your role in managing the boss
The one-on-one conference with your boss and the fleshing out of the SMART formula to fit your situation can be critical for success in your job—and for getting the boss to understand how serious you are about doing well and managing your career. Hence, the proactive employee will not be content if these exercises are neglected. It’s no good to say, “Well this doesn’t seem to be the boss’s priority, so I’ll just do the daily grind and forge ahead with the general goals that seem to be ‘in the air’ around the office.” Getting an hour on your boss’s schedule should be doable for most people, and the planning done then can help to bring the boss on board with the agenda as you see it. No one can deny that the boss is one of the most important and influential persons in your life; he or she will assume that you’re pulling together to meet the company’s objectives. You want to do everything you can to assure that you’re cooperating so that you can achieve what you want during your years with the organization.

Get it in writing
Just as you made lots of notes during your job interviews—to guarantee proper follow-up to land the offer—now that you’re an employee you need to keep a careful record of what was said and what was agreed upon. You can bring your laptop to the meeting or take notes the old-fashioned way, but as soon as your meeting is over, write up a thorough report. Consider creating a spreadsheet listing the major projects, subordinate tasks, objectives, to-do lists, and deadlines you agreed upon. There may no need to reinvent the wheel: if your company provides an MBO template, use it. Just be sure to list everything on easy-to-read tables with columns for comments and conclusions. When the document is ready, review it with the boss and tweak it if necessary. The modern cliché, “Are we on the same page?” certainly applies here. Your position is enhanced once the boss understands your projections for the next year in writing and signs off on the document.

Nobody likes surprises
Your written plan shouldn’t remain hidden in a drawer. It is your job blueprint—which means it should be consulted frequently. Your boss may say to you, “We’ll look at this every quarter or in six months,” but you know better. Your plan should be your constant reference point, so that you  can regularly track your progress against the challenges and goals that have been set for you.  A lot can happen in a matter of weeks, so it may be appropriate to meet with the boss more often than quarterly, to consider:
  • Have there been dramatic changes in your industry?
  • Have economic trends had an impact on your company’s profitability?
  • Have department goals been revised significantly, so that some of your major tasks or projects are now off strategy? Have other priorities emerged?
  • Have others around you been fired or reassigned? Have new people come on board?
  • Have other departments or employees failed on deliverables that impact your ability to do your job?
  • Has an assignment turned out to be unrealistic, meaning that your efforts should be channeled in other directions?
  • Is there something else that the boss now considers urgent?

Maybe you won’t have to deal with major changes or turbulence, and maybe your action plan for the year can remain intact. But even in periods of calm and stability, it’s advisable to ask the boss for frequent reviews of the plan.

When you’re consulting with your boss on your job plan for the next year, it’s important to “grow the job.” In thinking of the months ahead, you want to look for ways to enhance your skills, expand your knowledge, and increase your value to the company. If you are looking to stretch and get to the next level, there are bound to be skill gaps—in fact, you want the skill gaps. You want to be able to say to your boss as the plan takes shape, “We have documented my goals and objectives, and here’s the training I need to attain them.” This may include courses, seminars, and certifications; it may include rotations in other departments or divisions; it may include on-the- job training with an in-house guru. Development planning—your development as a career professional—goes hand-in-hand with objective setting, and the ideal is to have your boss as advocate, partner, and sponsor.

A delicate balance
Everyone wants to get along with the boss; as I mentioned earlier, he or she is one of the most important people in your life. But the imbalance of power can put a strain on the relationship. The boss has more power than you do—your fate is in his or her hands.

Reactive employees usually approach the boss’s desk with a parent-child model in mind (perhaps the most classic example of the imbalance of power). Proactive employees, on the other hand—career-minded professionals—approach the boss with an adult/adult model in mind. A balance of power means collegiality: everyone working and pulling together so that power is not so obvious on the surface. Collegiality is the fundamental principle that governs the boss/employee meeting to set goals and objectives.

Whatever type of boss you work with, if you project a take-charge demeanor with respect to your job and career you are more likely to win his or her confidence—and make progress toward your long-range goals.

This article was prepared with David Madison.

You can learn more about the Five O’Clock Club at www.fiveoclockclub.com