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Ways of Working Around Your Boss's Unavailability

By Joann S. Lublin

Beware the busy boss.

Citing other commitments, a vice president of a consumer-products maker often canceled or cut short sessions sought by lieutenants such as Jim McNerney. The purchasing agent became so frustrated by his scant face time that he began talking and walking fast alongside the caffeine-addicted VP as he strode swiftly to the coffee room.

In late July, Mr. McNerney and five colleagues lost their jobs. He partly blames their elusive supervisor. "He never wanted to be personally engaged. Everybody was expendable in his mind," contends Mr. McNerney, a resident of Arcadia, N.C.

It's hard to shine when you have trouble reaching your boss -- whether that's due to the executive's hectic work schedule, heavy travel or poor interpersonal skills. A lack of visibility "is a huge red flag" that makes you vulnerable during an economic slowdown, warns Donna Schwarz, a New York career coach. Any time her clients complain about an inaccessible superior, she inquires, "How much savings do you have?"

The best remedy: Learn to manage your manager. "You have to be inventive to create that access," proposes Doug Hearn, a senior vice president at Williams, Roberts, Young, a human-resource consultancy in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Being inventive requires adapting to your supervisor's preferred forms of communication -- and schedule. Some bosses hate to hear from the office during their commutes. Others resent repeated requests for one-minute get-togethers that instead last 40 minutes.

Face-to-face encounters make the most sense for dealing with complicated workplace issues, of course. But they may not suit your manager's quirky habits.

At a prior consulting job, Mr. Hearn felt stalled because meetings and trips constantly distracted his boss. "A two-minute session was about the longest conversation I ever had," he says.

Mr. Hearn negotiated a successful alternative. He sent the managing partner an email every Friday that described his achievements, planned actions and issues needing input.

Silicon Valley public-relations manager Brian Johnson recently reported to an executive vice president who traveled 80% of the time. The woman believed her 30 subordinates should work around her frequent absences. She typically returned their calls at odd hours. So, Mr. Johnson got in the habit of always carrying a 3x5-inch card or Palm Pilot that summarized his pending tasks and problems. He whipped out the card when his boss phoned -- during weekend religious services, nights out with his wife and romps in the park with his children.

Her inaccessibility "made my job more difficult to perform," Mr. Johnson concedes. He got laid off this past May. "She could have coached me better if she had been more available," he says.

It's a good idea to regularly update your supervisor's preferences for staying in touch. Once a year, you should ask, "What one thing would you change about how I'm communicating with you?" advises Michael Patrick, president of MOHR Access, a retail-training consultancy in Ridgewood, N.J.

You can also avoid feeling ignored by appealing to your manager's priorities. Perhaps a deadline looms for a project he cares deeply about. Tell him you could beat the deadline if he promptly responds to your emails during your weekend toil. Put the project's name, and a catchy phrase, in the email subject line.

How effectively you connect with an overtaxed boss may depend on his executive assistant, who controls his calendar and forwards important email.

Cultivate a good relationship with that assistant, suggests Scott Setterberg, human-resources director at law firm O'Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles. During a stint in the movie industry, he often helped counsel the boss's assistants, so he usually could win five minutes of the executive's overcrowded calendar from a grateful assistant.

No single path to communication will always be open. One Boston marketing vice president used to enjoy informal, early morning chats with the CEO at a software concern -- until he hired a human-resources vice president. Then, most requests she made for help from the company leader got forwarded to the new hire instead.

The marketing official thought she caught a break when she found herself and the chief executive flying to Europe together six months after their morning talks stopped. "I was really looking forward to being able to discuss some issues," she recollects. Just before takeoff, he turned to her and declared, "I never discuss business on flights. I get airsick and just want to try to sleep." She gave up trying to communicate and soon quit.

When all else fails, your supervisor's inaccessibility might offer a chance to demonstrate your abilities to senior executives. A middle manager at a computer maker who works from home once a week ignores his cellphone and employees' email on those days. A senior Web designer reporting to him alerted the boss's boss that she handled decisions in his absence. Though she still reports to her manager, she now supervises two employees for the first time -- and answers their messages quickly.

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Article from CareerJournal Today – September 2006