Building a positive relationship with your new boss

How well do you get on with your boss, especially if they are new to the role? How much time and effort do you take to develop a strong relationship with your new boss?

During our professional careers, just about all of us have reported along the way to new bosses who arrive from many different backgrounds.

Just think about it:

  • Suddenly one of your colleagues is promoted and will be your new boss.
  • You successfully apply for a PR/comms position from your current internal or external job, so you need to get your new boss on your side.
  • Your new boss is appointed from elsewhere in the organization with little knowledge of PR. Eg A General Manager for whom public relations is just one of several responsibilities.
  • Even coming from semi-related disciplines is not often very useful to relate to a strategic communication role, e.g., marketing, advertising, HR (for internal comms).
  • The boss position has been advertised internally and filled by someone with little knowledge of PR, corporate affairs, etc.
  • The boss position has been advertised externally for an experienced person in business communication/corporate affairs.
  • Your new boss has been recruited externally from among the high-level range of contacts of your senior management, and the communication responsibility is now one of their portfolios.
  • You are promoted to take charge of the corporate affairs portfolio, which has been made more strategic. Your boss is now the Managing Director/CEO.
  • During your career, you may have experienced various other categories of bosses in government or institutions, charities and other non-government organizations (NGOs) or in PR agencies with their own organizational structures and lines of reporting.

In any professional position, your boss is the most important person in your working life. As a professional communicator, to develop a constructive relationship with your new boss, you first need to know the answer to a crucial question – do they come from a communication background or not? In other words:

  • Do they understand the strategic nature of communication? “Public relations is a multi-faceted management function which can aid leaders with better decision-making, strategic planning and stakeholder engagement.” (The Role of Public Relations in Strategic Planning and Crisis Preparedness report by the UK Institute of Directors, 2023.)
  • Or do they still think, like many senior managers, that PR has a largely tactical, superficial role – mainly using communication to change perceptions, images or reputations of organizations, with daily routine tasks like writing newsletters and media releases and organizing event activities? Therefore, we need to develop an education program for our new boss and potentially for other management simultaneously.

Regrettably, European research published in 2021 reported that senior management (non-communicator management) opinions of public relation competence revealed a gap – they underestimated both technician and manager skills by approximately 25% [Public Relations Review 47 (2021) 102037].

We all communicate

Communication is the most common factor in our personal and working life. We all communicate. Because of that, many people assume professional communication is easy. But the importance and complexity of professional communication are widely underplayed in the minds of management, especially executives from a technical background, who tend to think they have a superior view of people. Yet, there is nothing superficial about effective public relations and professional communication.

“The communication profession is the living embodiment of complexity.

Communication is complex, fluid and often misunderstood. It is a function, but it is also a constitutive part of organizations and organizing in a way that other professions are not. It is perfectly possible for organizations to operate without buildings, money or products, but it is not feasible for them to exist without communication.”

Source: Professor Anne Gregory, former Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. The Next Level Global Report: The business value of good internal communication, 2018, p. 136.

How to work well with your new boss

Gallup research covering the employment of millions of workers in hundreds of organizations over two decades has found that only “about one in 10 people possess the talent to manage,” and that “Managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores across business units.” In view of these consistent findings, you can’t just sit back and wait for your new boss to be switched on to the needs of you and your team. Therefore, when you develop a program of activity, this will help your boss to improve to their effectiveness as well as yours.

Make a good start

Your own vision, goals or action plan involving strategic planning, decision-making, and execution form the big picture of your own role. The daily, small actions you take to support your relationship with your new boss are just as important.

Make an effort! Build your own discreet and regular daily program of small activities enabling you to achieve a positive relationship with your boss, which will produce good results for you both and your whole team.

Write a personal overall plan of the small things you can do regularly – and review it every day. Don’t feel this is contrived or manipulative. Instead, it is a vital relationship development program.

So, do your homework. Show genuine interest in your new boss. In the early days, help them to settle in. Find out what you have in common – and what things you don’t. Make short written notes for your own reference later in your relationship. Find out about your boss’s character, family, favorite sports, hobbies, likes and dislikes, professional background and its relevance to their current role. See what you can find out about them on the internet, such as on LinkedIn and social media such as Facebook, in industry publications etc. If you know people who know your new boss, you can ask them for some insights. These are simple, daily actions that take little time, but they will go a long way in helping you create and sustain a positive relationship with your boss.

When I was appointed corporate affairs manager in an organization, my role included attending weekly executive meetings on Monday mornings. I found Nenad my new boss, a young ambitious general manager, was notably always trying to impress his own boss, the CEO, at these meetings. I had discovered Nenad took little interest in sports, but I gradually realized that every Monday morning before work, he had quickly read the results and commentary relating to the weekend’s local professional football matches and eagerly chatted with the big boss about the results before the executive meetings started. He knew the chief was a big football fan, and used this opportunity to suck up to him. I used to read the weekend sports coverage myself and found Nenad’s comments echoed the opinions of journalists of the day and… totally coincidentally, also the opinions of the CEO.

Nenad’s relationship strategy seemed to have worked, and he appeared to be on a fast career track, but after the CEO retired, Nenad’s career stalled as I think new CEOs were more interested in results than receiving sycophantic attention.

When you try to find out about your new boss’s background, don’t overdo it! Be relaxed in these conversations. Listen to your boss for their opinions. Tactfully look around their office periodically to see what they may have brought along with them, such as memorabilia from past jobs and family mementos like photos. And make discreet notes later of these observations.

Develop an action plan for yourself which includes your own goals

Your relationship with your new boss will develop in discussions with them. In fact, it is worth creating an action plan for these early and ongoing discussions with your new boss, which will enable you to form your own goals systematically:

  1. The context. Find out what your boss views as the broad business context in which the organization, and therefore you, will be operating. How did your organization get to the current situation? What is senior management expecting from the role of your new boss and yourself, if your boss is the new arrival or if you are?
  2. Expectations of your boss. Begin managing expectations from the start of your employment or if your boss is a new starter from the beginning of their employment. As a priority, clarify what you both expect in your relationshipWithin this, what does your new boss expect you to achieve within the short and medium term? What will comprise your success? How much time will you have to achieve success? How will it be measured? Make sure your boss has realistic expectations of you, and if not, what will you do to realign them? Aim to under-promise and over-deliver.
  3. Early wins in areas important to the boss. Whatever your priorities, determine what the boss prioritizes, and aim to achieve results in those areas. your job is to shape your boss’s perceptions of what can and should be achieved. But, if you believe any of your boss’s priorities are a bit misguided, discuss tactfully and support your case with evidence.

In contact with your boss, come ready with suggested solutions to problems. New bosses are often overrun with problems. Instead, use your opportunity to develop a strong relationship by offering proposed solutions.

  1. Interactions with your boss. Decide how you and your new boss can best interact on an ongoing basis. How and when does he or she prefer you to communicate with him or her? Options include face-to-face, by video link, email, etc. How often? What kinds of decisions do they want to be involved in and when can you make the decision? Think about how your personalities are different and how you can best interact in view of this.
  2. Ask “What can I do to improve?” After your new boss has been on deck for a few weeks, ask them this key question to seek their feedback. This would provide valuable guidance on how to close any gaps between how they perceive you are performing and what they expect from you. Wording your feedback request in this positive way can help your boss focus on your improvement areas. It also signals that you are eager to understand how to improve, even if you are doing well.

There is a real need for you to do this because US workplace surveys have found that managers are terrible at initiating feedback to their team members. For instance, a 2016 online Interact survey found almost 70% of managers said they are often uncomfortable communicating with employees. Over a third (37%) of the managers said that they’re uncomfortable having to give direct feedback about their employees’ performance if they think the employee might respond negatively to the feedback.

  1. Resources and budget. Start by making joint decisions on your resources and budget. What is already available? Do you need anything more to be successful? What do you need your boss to do? Don’t commit to goals without getting corresponding commitments on resources. Otherwise, you won’t hold much bargaining power.
  2. Develop good relationships with people whose opinions your boss respects. This includes people above and below you in the organizational hierarchy and externally. From this, you can build supportive internal coalitions, including business journalists.
These discussions are interrelated and will develop as time progresses. Early discussions should focus more on the operational context, expectations of your boss, and interactions with him or her.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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