Personal Development: Getting the Most from Your Boss

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For a couple of decades, I asked the participants in my training programs for supervisors what things they wanted to learn most. Two items were always on the list and usually in the top three. One of them was “talking to people about performance.” The other was “getting along with my boss.”

“Getting along” is fine, but I think you’ll do better if you think about everything you can get from your boss. That starts with getting the best possible evaluation.

Figure Out What Works

Part of your job is to make your boss successful. That means helping your boss achieve his or her goals in a way that’s comfortable for them. You could go off in a corner and try to figure out how to do it, or you could just ask.

It’s amazing to me how many people I talked to who never took the initiative to ask their boss what the boss wanted. Here are some questions you can use.

What do you expect from me? What are the results that will help you the most?

How do you want me to brief you? Some people want briefings in writing. Others prefer an aural briefing.

If I have a problem or spot an opportunity, how do you want me to bring it to you? Some bosses want to know about problems and opportunities at the first hint. Others prefer to wait until you’re sure the issue is important. Still others expect you to let them know what’s happening and include recommendations.

Don’t stop with just knowing what you should do. Deliver it. Get feedback. Get better.

Learn from Your Boss

One of the most important things you can get working for someone else is lessons about how they do things and why. That starts with observation. Make notes about a situation your boss dealt with and what he or she did. Describe the outcome.

If it will help you understand, and it’s okay with the boss, ask about how they imagined the situation and why they chose the actions they did. You may also want to ask about what they might do differently next time.

When you think about how you might act in the same situation, be sure to filter the advice. We’re all different personalities, and what works for your boss might not work for you.

Be Coachable

When I was coming up, bosses who would coach or mentor you were rare indeed. Today, those roles are almost an expected part of leadership. If you’re lucky enough to have a boss that is willing to work with you, soak up all the advice that you can.

Learning from A Bad Boss

You can learn a lot from a bad boss. Even bosses who aren’t very effective still do some things well. Learn from those positive examples.

Bad bosses also give you lots of lessons about what not to do. Those are important lessons but be careful. When you identify something that your boss does that you don’t want to do, make sure you decide what you will do instead.

The problem with negative examples is that they teach you not what to do, but they don’t teach you what you should do. Make sure you learn both halves.

When Your Boss Is A Real Jerk

Some bosses are worse than bad. They’re toxic. They make everything harder and burn off the joy around just about anything. I know, I’ve had a truly awful boss.

Shaun Kieran once framed the choice that you have when your boss is a jerk this way. “It’s like being stranded on a desert island. You have two choices. You can figure out how to survive on the island, or you can start building a raft.”

That’s a good simple explanation, but the reality of figuring out how to survive and/or build a raft has a lot of moving parts. Rather than try to condense them into a couple of paragraphs, I urge you to read Bob Sutton’s marvelous book, The Asshole Survival Guide.

Bottom Line

No matter what situation you find yourself in, you always have the challenge to learn and to grow. Learn as much as you can from a good boss. When you learn what not to do, figure out what you should do instead. And if you have a really awful, terrible, no-good boss, pick up a copy of The Asshole Survival Guide and start reading.

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