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Train Your Manager To Be a Better Boss

By Arlene S. Hirsch

Work can be miserable when you and your boss don't get along. At times, quitting may seem to be the only option.

When she was a working journalist, Jill Geisler decided she didn't want to work for someone she remembers as a "gloriously imperfect" boss. "Picture Anthony Quinn, Vince Lombardi, and Hawkeye Pierce all rolled into one man," she says. "Volatile. Demanding. Larger than life."

Ms. Geisler, now a group leader in St. Petersburg, Fla., for the Poynter Institute, a training center for journalists, sought advice from a mentor, who counseled her to get to know her boss before making a rash career decision. Now she's glad she did.

She and the man she didn't want to work for are good friends who laugh about their rocky start 15 years ago. Despite differing styles, they both valued high-quality journalism and community service. Once Ms. Geisler had earned her supervisor's trust and respect, she could question and challenge his decisions and even nag him about his idiosyncrasies.

One reason the relationship succeeded is that Ms. Geisler took responsibility for making it work. Her candor became the foundation for a close and fruitful professional partnership.

If you work for an imperfect boss, what are you prepared to do about it? These suggestions from consultants and employment experts can help you to improve your relationship with a new or long-time supervisor:

1. Learn how to deliver news.

Determine how your boss likes to receive information, says Patti Hathaway, an organizational-change consultant in Westerville, Ohio, and a co-author of "Managing Upward: Strategies for Succeeding With Your Boss" (Crisp Publications, 1992). Figure out if you should write memos or send e-mails, schedule a meeting or make a phone call.

"Your style may be different than theirs," says Ms. Hathaway. "If you want to influence that relationship, you'll need to adapt to their preferences."

For instance, does your boss prefer details or just the bottom line? Competition or cooperation? Often, we present ideas as we would like them to be presented to us, when, in fact, the key to managing someone is to try and meet their needs, not ours.

When a new chief executive officer arrived at a well-known retailer, he established an open-door policy so he could get to know his new employees better. Three days into his new job, the CEO received an unannounced visit from a marketing manager who had bad news to deliver. Many employees were sub-par, including the entire customer-service team, several sales representatives and many administrators, the manager said.

Open-door policy notwithstanding, the new CEO didn't appreciate receiving what he viewed as arrogant, inaccurate and overly judgmental pronouncements. From that day forward, the marketing manager's dealings with the CEO relationship were strained, and they soon parted ways.

"There's an art to presenting issues to the boss. Employees who hone that skill stand a better chance of obtaining positive results," says Ms. Geisler, who now trains managers. "Frame your advice positively. Avoid loaded words and phrases. When you say: 'Everyone knows we have a problem with...' your manager may hear it as a personal accusation instead of an idea for a solution."

2. Learn your boss's likes and dislikes.

Your boss's imperfections offer great opportunities for you to grow, says Ms. Geisler. Start by studying your supervisor and learning his or her values, priorities, strengths, weaknesses, and expertise.

The key to understanding and managing your relationship is knowing what makes your boss "tick," says Ms. Hathaway. What are his or her pet peeves? Can you tell when your boss is angry or satisfied?

She suggests observing what someone who gets along well with your boss does that makes them so successful. If you are too close to the relationship to be objective, observing someone else can help you learn what's effective.

It's important to clarify a boss's goals and expectations, says Johanna Rothman, CEO of Jrothman Consulting Inc., an information-technology firm in Arlington, Mass. "Help them become familiar with the role you play, and how your activities can contribute to their goals and accomplishments," she says.

3. Don't expect your boss to take responsibility for your relationship .

Employees often mistakenly assume that the boss-subordinate relationship is a one-way street, instead of understanding they're responsible for forging an effective working relationship.

It may help to remember that your boss is an ordinary person who doesn't have all the answers and needs help, says Michael H. Smith, an organizational psychologist in Oakland, Calif. "Accept your responsibility. Instead of expecting your boss to be the perfect parent who understands and responds to all of your needs, recognize that bosses are ordinary people in a tough job, and do your best to help them do that job better," he says.

Ms. Geisler says she strived to do her part to improve her working relationship with her former supervisor. "Make no mistake about it," she says. "That communication was something I saw as my responsibility. I worked at balancing our strengths and styles all the time."

4. Help your manager to be successful.

It's important to help your boss do a good job because your success is linked to his or hers, says Ms. Rothman.

Figure out what your boss needs to be successful and then try to provide it. "Take the initiative to provide feedback," says Mr. Smith. "Many bosses are isolated from their employees, and don't get enough feedback or genuine insight about an employee's needs and goals."

Don't assume your boss won't appreciate your taking the initiative to educate him or her. An information-systems executive for a global manufacturing firm in southern Illinois reports having had six bosses in seven years, and he's helped train them all. Due to the high turnover in the role, he knows more about the position than they do. All have appreciated his helpful suggestions.

Helping them learn what is necessary to be effective is in his best interest, he says. "It's my job to train them the way I want them to be trained," he says. "I need my boss to be successful. If my boss isn't successful, the whole department suffers. Right out of the gate, they have to sound confident and competent. I don't want them stumbling and hurting me."

Since his bosses are usually nontechnical managers, the IS executive assumes they'll need technical coaching. But he's careful not to overstep his boundaries. "I assume the new manager knows how to manage people or they wouldn't have gotten the job in the first place," he says. "But I also assume that they want to succeed in their new position and that it's my responsibility to help them be successful."

His advice is nonthreatening because he doesn't have a hidden agenda: He isn't interested in moving up the ladder or taking their jobs. He just wants to go on doing his effectively. "We're on the same team," he said. "And we both have the same goals. We both want them to be successful."

Ms. Rothman concurs with his views. "Educate them; don't make them feel ignorant. Don't make them feel like you're judging them. A new boss in any culture needs to understand 'what everyone knows' - you can get a lot of mileage out of that. It helps create a bond of trust and influence."

5. Don't rush things.

As with any good relationship, it takes time to build trust. Susan Bixler, president and founder of The Professional Image, a corporate-leadership-consulting firm in Atlanta, encourages employees she coaches to move slowly and use maturity and good judgment when dealing with bosses.

"With so much downsizing and reorganization in the workplace, the traditional boss-employee bond has deteriorated," she says. "The length of time and opportunity to develop an effective working relationship is steadily shrinking."

Diplomacy can be the better part of valor. People who take the initiative to be a part of the solution usually garner more influence and support from their bosses than perpetual naysayers.

Ms. Hirsch is a career counselor in Chicago. She's written several books on career issues, including "How to Be Happy at Work" (Jist Publishing, 2003).

Article from CareerJournal Today – February 2004