For the first twenty years or so of my career, I was fortunate to be able to pick my boss. By that I mean, I knew who I would report to when I took the job.
In my first corporate assignment, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about my supervisor. I knew who he was and what his credentials were, but frankly I was clueless as to how much a manager’s personality impacts the workplace environment. I worked for this man for many years, and I learned his strengths and weaknesses, as well as experiencing first hand the benefits and pitfalls of his characteristics as a manager.
On my next few assignments, I knew something more about the individuals I went to work for, though I didn’t know these individuals well. Still, I chose the jobs knowing who I would report to. I went into the jobs knowing something about them, and had colleagues who had worked for them longer to whom I could talk. And I had enough experience to know myself and how I liked to work, as well as how to be flexible and adapt to new managerial expectations.
Then, in the last few years of my corporate career, I twice had managers foisted on me. My former managers left their roles (and one left the company), and new people were assigned to the positions that I reported to. I had no control over my reporting relationships. It was a disconcerting experience to be in my forties and suddenly have to change how I related to my boss with very little warning.
Even though it was difficult, I was fortunate to know who these people were, and I had worked with them before in previous assignments. Reporting to these individuals was far different than working as peers with them, but I knew the importance of building a relationship with one’s manager and in addressing their priorities. Many people do not have the benefit of knowing the boss that is foisted on them.
So here are my tips for how to deal with a boss you didn’t choose:
1. Analyze the situation
The first thing to do is to understand the organizational issues that led to you having a new manager. Did your old boss retire after a laudable career or was he or she fired? These circumstances will lead to different dynamics as your new manager comes into the workplace.
Even if you don’t know the particulars, you probably have some idea as to what the expectations for change are in your department. Spend some time thinking about the situation you find yourself in.
2. Gather information
As you analyze the situation, gather additional information where you can. Maybe you know your new boss, as I did mine. But if not, you should see what you can find out about his or her work styles, what the higher executives’ expectations are for change in your department, and anything else that can help you fit into the organization as it is evolving.
Do a little research on what executives in your field (or managers generally) should do in their first 90 days in a new role. That will help you assess what your new boss is probably thinking about and where he or she might focus attention first. If you can address your boss’s priorities, or even help determine those priorities, you will be in a better position to be successful.
3. Determine your loyalties
You may have loved working for your old manager. You may have strong friendships with co-workers that might now be upset if the department reorganizes. You might be close to retirement yourself and just want to lay low. Whatever your situation, decide in your own mind where your loyalties lie.
I’m not suggesting that you turn into a back-stabber, but you should give some thought to who else might get caught up in the changes and how they will react. Think about whom you want to help and about where you would ideally end up in relation to others in the organization.
And I suggest that, if your old boss was fired and the new manager is expected to make significant changes, taking the attitude that “that’s how things have always been” is not going to get you very far.
Simply because he or she is your supervisor, the new person to whom you report is deserving of respect and loyalty. Others also deserve your respect and loyalty, and that is why I recommend you consider how all the new relationships you will have after the change will impact your role.
4. Decide what you bring to the table
It’s a cliché, but you want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. You want your new manager to see you as a resource. So think about what you can do to help your new boss.
Do you have specialized skills or experience that the boss does not have—how can you diplomatically make your abilities known and available to your manager? Do you have relationships with others or insights into the industry that could benefit the new boss? Again, where can you help fill gaps?
5. Provide assistance to your new manager
After you’ve analyzed the situation, gleaned what you can about your new supervisor, thought about the loyalties and responsibilities you will have in the future, and assessed where you fit in, then make a sincere offer to assist your boss where you can. If you’ve done this analysis, you’ll have some specific suggestions of how your skills and background can help your new manager where he or she is most likely to need help.
You will have positioned yourself to address his or her needs and priorities, and you will be appreciated for it. Yes, it’s office politics, but it’s also common sense to try to make yourself useful in a new environment.
What additional tips do you have for dealing with a boss you didn’t choose?