You’ve probably heard the phrase “managing your boss,” which has always seemed a bit unfriendly to me, like you’re barely tolerating the relationship. Rather than managing your boss, imagine making your boss your champion. How great would it be if they acknowledged and celebrated you? Turning a boss into a cheerleader may not always be possible — for reasons ranging from their personality to organizational culture — but when circumstances appear favorable, pay attention to the building blocks of a strong working relationship.
Reach out and connect
If your boss doesn’t make an effort to get to know you, it’s on you to find a way to connect, whether it’s through personal interests, such as golf or cooking, or work-related matters. Most bosses like to be in the know, so sharing information informally on a current project can give them on-the-ground insights they can recount with their peers. Other work-related ways to connect include offering to take on special projects or volunteering to represent your department on company-wide initiatives. Your interest in supporting your boss’s organization will strengthen your connection and provide a good networking opportunity for you.
Keep in mind that forming a close connection with your boss obligates you to keeping their confidences. When speaking with other people, do not share information you’ve gained from your boss that would not be common knowledge. If your boss is to become your champion, they need to know you can be trusted.
Match their communication style
Senior managers and leaders appreciate it when you recognize how they prefer to deliver and receive communications and then endeavor to match their style. Variables include preferences for the big picture versus detail, verbal or written communication or some combination of both, and frequency of communication. But just about every boss embraces the “No Surprises” rule. Whether they are delivering or receiving a message, they want expectations set and the path prepared for negative or difficult communications.
Equally important is understanding the reason for your boss’s communication. An extroverted boss may prefer to talk through ideas before coming to a decision; they’re seeking possibilities, not giving marching orders. I have wasted time acting on something my boss said when she was still considering options and wasn’t ready to proceed. If you have yet to crack your boss’s communication style, it never hurts to ask for clarification. For example, if your boss says, “It would be nice if we revised our website,” are they making an implicit request, toying with an idea, or just expressing a preference? You might respond to their vague remark with a question — “Would you like me to look into assigning a task team?” — that indicates your interest in moving the idea forward while gaining insight into your boss’s intent.
Demonstrate buy-in for their goals
All bosses expect their staff to accept their plans and aspirations for their team. If you don’t understand your boss’s goals, asking for clarification shows your willingness to align with them. If you have issues with their goals, you can express your concerns by noting what doesn’t work for you while remaining open-minded and curious. Your boss may be willing to modify the goals, but if not, don’t work against them. Your job is to do as directed with the same enthusiasm as if your boss had accepted your ideas. Actively working to achieve their goals — even if you respectfully disagree — shows you support them and they can rely on you.
Ask for work feedback
Most bosses don’t want staff to come to them to solve their problems. When you hit a difficult area, ask your boss if they would listen to your potential solutions — the rule of thumb is for every problem you should have two to three ideas to solve it — and to provide feedback. Instead of dumping a problem on your boss’s lap, you demonstrate your problem-solving skills, and by asking for feedback, you show your respect for their expertise. You’re also giving your boss more insight into your work. If your boss’s guidance helped you solve your problem, be sure to let them know and to thank them. A boss who is interested in being your champion will enjoy knowing they’ve contributed to your success.
Ask for career feedback
Senior leaders and managers may feel flattered when asked to give career advice, but don’t go to your boss like a lump of clay expecting to be shaped. Most bosses aren’t good career coaches; however, if you share your goals and interests, your boss will gain a better understanding of what you care about and will be able to recommend you for roles that you want.
If your boss has a particular skill you admire, ask them how they developed it. In addition to making your boss feel seen and appreciated, you may learn a new skill.
Maintain realistic expectations
In a perfect world, all bosses are wise, supportive, and generous with their time. But most of us don’t live in a perfect world. You may be hoping for a teddy bear but end up with Cocaine Bear. You can only play the cards you’re dealt. And the more you learn how to adapt and be flexible, the easier it will be to adjust to the boss you do get, who may turn out to be exactly the champion you want.
Be intentional about connecting with your boss, communicating the way they prefer, supporting their goals, and seeking the right level of guidance from them. By providing your boss with positive information about your work, you will make it easy for them to champion you because they know you are helping them and the organization succeed.