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How to boost your PR career by successfully managing your boss

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

Most people know the importance of managing their relationships with the people who report to them, but you would be surprised at the number of people who forget to manage their most important working relationship – the one with their boss. Everyone has a boss, but all too often people don’t think of acting systematically to reap the benefits from working at this relationship.

Just think for a moment about the bosses you have had and what you actually did or didn’t do to strengthen your working relationship with them. We all fall into a pattern of behavior and tend to repeat it over time, mistakes and all!

You have a great opportunity to ensure your relationship with your boss is positive and productive. It’s in both your interests to maintain a good professional understanding with plenty of communication.

If you actively manage your relationship, your boss will be more supportive when the time comes for performance reviews and salary reviews. You could be fast-tracking your career!

Treat your boss as your key stakeholder

Your best approach is to manage the relationship through a stakeholder relations management strategy. There are specific actions you can do to strengthen the relationship with your direct boss. Your boss may be the chief executive, a vice-president, a general manager or other senior manager. Perhaps your boss is the head of the PR function. Effective practitioners commit the time and effort to develop a relationship with their boss that meets the needs of you both.

As a public relations practitioner, you can offer unique added value to your boss because you may become privy to some corporate information even before the boss does. This is because you may pick up important information while interviewing senior managers from other areas of the organization in the course of your work, being briefed on important statutory information such as annual reports and reports to the stock exchange, and also when you are called in very early to be briefed about important corporate issues that require an urgent communication response. Where appropriate, you can alert your boss to this type of breaking news, acting as an early warning system for them. This approach worked extremely well for me with a boss who was general manager of a division in which I was based – he always wanted to be one of the first to be ‘in the know’ about significant events.

One productive activity is to draw up your own personal written stakeholder relations plan to help you informally shape your relationship with your boss. This could involve making an effort to take an interest in their professional and personal interests and hobbies as well as their business role. Even simple clues such as the objects, photographs and certificates in their office can be very revealing and provide good insights. A written plan may seem a bit calculating and mercenary, but what doesn’t get planned generally doesn’t get done! Depending on the seniority of your boss, the sort of actions you could plan and implement could entail:

  • always alerting them to significant corporate issues as you become aware of them;

  • arranging personal communication, media and presentation skills coaching for them;

  • organising attendance at public relations professional development briefings, eg on stakeholder relations management or issues management, especially if your boss is in senior management and isn’t broadly aware of the full scope and potential of the communication role;

  • setting up networking opportunities for them;

  • arranging for them to host relevant stakeholders at the corporate box at sporting and cultural events;

  • obtaining publicity for them in professional publications;

  • contributing or ‘ghost-writing’ articles in their name in your organization’s publication and in professional association publications.

The important thing with a stakeholder relations plan relating to your boss is not to be too ambitious with its implementation – make it happen systematically over a manageable period of time. Don’t be intimidated by the time it might take and don’t let it fade away as you deal with the inevitable other pressing issues that confront you in your job. Most of the value in such a plan comes from the way it enables you to develop a strong relationship with your boss by consistent actions over time. This builds trust and shows your integrity.

Simply work back from the outcomes you want from the boss, which may mean small but significant responses on their part. Break down the actions involved in each component of the plan into small manageable steps that you can implement over 12 months. At the end of that time you will be able to look back with surprise and satisfaction at how much you have actually been able to do to cement a strong working relationship with your boss.

Also, if you are working to an agreed set of personal Key Performance Indicators in your job, make sure they are worthwhile and not just there because they are measurable. Try to make the KPIs relate to outcomes rather than merely activity. For instance, if one of your tasks during the year is to conduct a stakeholder relations survey of your own personal or departmental stakeholders, don’t just tick the box that you have completed the survey within the agreed time; drill more deeply for a set of actions (changed behavior) that the survey findings point to – and put together an action plan for those changes. You can then show your boss the tangible changes (improvements) you have made in response to the survey. This helps you justify your position if hard questions are asked down the track.

Do your homework on the boss

Managing your boss requires a good understanding of the boss and their context as well as your own situation and needs. You need to understand your boss’s goals and pressures, strengths and weaknesses, pressures from their own boss, and preferred style of working.

For a start, you could try to obtain a copy of their CV. You might say it would be helpful for doing a write-up on them in the staff newsletter or a media release to announce their appointment. These documents give good insight into their experience and strengths. Most bosses would feel a bit flattered to be asked for their CV.

You will start to get a feel for how secure your boss is. Some bosses, especially when they are new, feel rather threatened by a subordinate doing great things, so never show them up in front of others. And if an appropriate opportunity arises, give them public credit for some of your ideas can help to cement your relationship with them. (Getting on top of organizational politics is the subject of another newsletter.)

Being sensitive to a boss’s work style can be crucial. Some bosses like to receive reports in great detail, others like just ‘the big picture’, some like to receive verbal briefings for information while others prefer to read reports. Some like short progress reports at appropriate milestones in projects; others like to receive regular reporting in verbal batches, say at the beginning or the end of the day. What are your boss’s preferences?

Getting a vague boss to express their expectations can be difficult, especially if you would like to get their expectations of you in writing, but you can overcome this. One way is to initiate a regular detailed progress report of your completed work and your planned activities for the next week or month, and then give it to your boss for consideration. You can indicate that you expect them to use this as an agenda paper for a follow-up, face-to-face meeting in which they review the relevant items with you. (The best use of agendas is explained in another newsletter.) Some items won’t need discussion – the written summary will be a sufficient report in itself. This process usually reveals all significant expectations.

The written summary is also important as a record of the work you have undertaken in your job. If you don’t pause to summarize your work activities regularly and progressively, you will forget to mention some of your important achievements during performance and salary reviews. A written summary of achievements – showing measurable outcomes that benefited the employer – can even help to justify your job during tough times.

If you have a new boss, another technique is to find out useful information about your boss’s preferences from colleagues or from people who used to work for them, especially if your boss has come from within your own organization. It is remarkable how obliging people are when you seek their advice in a tactful way. They feel helpful and important and are very likely to give you a detailed account about your new boss, which will equip you with the information to kick-start a positive relationship.

Obtain your boss’s performance agreement

Many employers use written performance agreements for their staff. Such a document would be the key to your work for the year. The agreement should be prepared by your boss and yourself in conjunction and should include realistic but challenging targets. You should regularly review with your boss the details and deadlines in the document.

In turn, your boss’s own formal performance agreement, or similar, is a vital guide to you. By knowing what your boss’s targets are, you can ensure you play your part in helping your boss to meet those targets. By all means ask your boss for a copy of the document, or the parts that may be relevant to you, so that you can do your job better – which will enable them to their job better. For instance, the communication component of one operational general manager’s real-life performance agreement includes the following measures:

  • Develop an internal communication strategy by 31 March

  • Prepare a stakeholder relations strategy by 31 May

  • Undertake a survey of medium and high priority external stakeholder groups by 30 September

  • Conduct a communication audit of managers and staff by 30 November

Developing a workable set of mutual expectations requires you to communicate your own expectations to the boss to find out if they are realistic, and to influence the boss to accept the ones that are important to you. Being able to influence the boss to value your expectations can be especially important if the boss is an overachiever. Such a person will often set unrealistically high standards that need to be brought into line with reality.

Give active encouragement to your boss

All bosses are human! They are just as susceptible to self-doubts as anyone else. And they all share with us one of the deepest desires in human nature – the need to feel important, to receive a compliment, to be appreciated. That’s why so many bosses and chief executives like having ‘yes men’ around them!

As subordinates, most of us crave appreciation and encouragement from our boss, a ‘parent’ figure in our life. Unfortunately, research shows that few bosses give the due recognition and praise that we desire (the subject of my e-book on employee recognition), and we have to bear with that unfortunate fact of life.

But do we ever think of reciprocating? Do we ever give compliments or ‘active encouragement’ to the boss on their achievements, even small achievements? Even unapproachable or difficult bosses are human. And perhaps you may have been looking at your boss from ‘the glass is half empty’ point of view, rather than from ‘the glass is half full’ point of view. Giving appreciation to your boss is a leadership attribute and is therefore a valuable skill to develop.

Try this exercise – give one compliment to your boss every day when you encounter him or her in the next week, starting next Monday. Note in your diary what you did and the response. Continue this procedure for the rest of the week and extend it to a second week, and a third week and so on until it becomes habit. You can think of something small beforehand or be spontaneous in discussion with them, but make sure you do offer a compliment, even on a small thing such as what they are wearing. If you don’t have daily contact with your boss, save up the compliments until you see them face-to-face, you can email them short notes of appreciation or give your appreciation over the phone.

If you offer regular and genuine compliments to your boss, you will find the impact is cumulative – your relationship will become progressively more positive. But the compliments have to be genuine. People quickly realize when you are faking it, especially if your relationship has been a bit rocky until now. And don’t overdo the compliments or your boss may suspect your motives. A positive response may not come straight away – your boss may be unaccustomed to receiving appreciation from you and may feel awkward at first about it. And don’t give a compliment in the expectation of receiving one in return. Most people are unused to giving compliments and are not good at it.

If you feel awkward about starting with your boss, you can start with someone closer to you such as your spouse, other members of your family or peers at work. Some of the best leaders have attributed their success largely to the way they are quick to praise and slow to criticize. This approach to life motivates others and raises their enthusiasm. If you adopt this approach with all the people in your life, you will find yourself to be a great source of encouragement and leadership to those around you.

Quick tips

Making a point of getting noticed by those who count is a career-enhancing move because their views will no doubt positively influence the boss as well. Being recognised as being good at the job is the best way to be noticed. Effective practitioners find ways for their strengths, abilities and willingness to make the extra effort to be seen by those who count.

Your boss’s opinion should be sought. Proposals should be presented in such a way that your boss can contribute to the end result and can take some ownership of the work – as long as they don’t try to take all the credit! Adopt the boss’s practicable suggestions. If they aren’t practicable, walk your boss through the implications by asking them a series of questions until they realise for themselves that their approach isn’t practicable.

Become a problem-solver by sorting out problems before they reach the boss. However, if a problem becomes more serious, ensure your boss hears about it first from you. 

Tackle conflict with the boss constructively. Some differences of opinion will inevitably occur over time. Disagree with the boss if it is important, but avoid challenging the boss in front of others. The boss will be unforgiving if they lose face in front of others.

Observe the chain of command. Even if the boss is wrong and won’t change their decision, it is disastrous to appeal over their head because the boss will never forgive such treachery.

One small but practical tip is to always acknowledge the boss’s email messages. Don’t just read messages; respond to them, even with “OK” or “Thanks”, so the boss doesn’t get the impression they are sending information into a black, bottomless hole run by a gormless subordinate.

Also, it helps to organise the information for which you are responsible so that when the boss asks for it, the information can be readily found. It is wise to keep everything received from the boss – and know where to retrieve it – and BACK IT UP! One day this housekeeping act will save the boss from losing valuable information and will make you look positively brilliant.

It is also prudent to confirm the boss’s verbal decisions, especially important decisions, promptly back to them by email. This ensures that you take full responsibility for the communication and that no misunderstandings arise and become a source of difficulty with the boss. One managing director was rather stressed and tended to forget from one day to the next what his decisions had been. It caused a lot of problems for executives until they began to confirm in writing the decisions made in their meetings with the chief.

Don’t waste the boss’s time

These days all bosses have limited time. Every contact with the boss uses some of this time. It is surprising how many people use up their boss’s time (and some of their own credibility) over relatively trivial matters. So it is important to prepare ahead and call upon your boss’s time sparingly. Use your formal meeting times with them for dealing only with important issues.

One great method for dealing with minor matters is to make a written or mental note of the various small items for which you need a quick decision from your boss. Most items can be raised informally when you have unexpected time together at the water cooler, in the corridor, in a car or aircraft together on the way to a meeting, etc. Some executives also adeptly make themselves available to their boss for all sorts of purposes at different times, just so they can get direct dialogue with them. For instance, a company’s executive chairman lived in another city and came to town only once a month to attend board meetings. One executive always volunteered to pick up the chairman from the airport and drive him back, day or night – it was no trouble at all. During the 45-minute drive each way he had the chief’s undivided attention and discussed many issues and gained many more decisions than he could from his normal course of contact with the chief. He was promoted within a few months!

A good relationship with the boss’s personal assistant is also vital, so don’t forget this in order to get priority access.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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