As I was helping a manager write a job description recently, he leaned over and said, “Wait. There’s one more ‘requirement’ we need to add.” Waiting a beat, he smiled: “Ability to make boss look good.” We both laughed – but we both recognized the truth in what he had said, too.
While the blatantly “political” (one might say, “Machiavellian”) nature of this idea is uncomfortable for me, there is no doubt that this represents a cold, hard truth in many if not all organizations. It might not be necessary for getting the job, but “making the boss look good” is often a de facto requirement for keeping (or succeeding in) a job long term.
How can one do so with integrity, serving the best interests of their organization, their boss, and – admittedly – their own career? Three “rules” come to mind.
NOTE: The following examples concern qualified, good-performing bosses. Incompetent and “mean” bosses are another case entirely – and, as they say, a story for another day.
#1: Invite them into situations that play to their strengths
We once had a CEO who, while surprisingly quiet and shy in one-to-one or small group settings, was a very engaging speaker in a large room. Therefore, when we invited him to kick-off a “Welcome to the company” orientation presentation on the day of an acquisition, we were quite surprised when he struggled mightily in telling the company’s story to the crowd.
We later realized our mistake: we had given him about 20 Power Point slides to speak from – and he was hamstrung by the slides. The next time out, we gave him only 3 or 4 items on an index card – no slides – and he was a hit! His engaging, casual personality only came out when he was free to make unscripted remarks. Once we figured this out, we kept inviting him to “ad hoc” speaking situations, and the rest, as they say, was history.
#2: Protect them from themselves whenever possible
For the past several years, I’ve worked for a very selfless and patient boss who “takes one for the team” and subjugates his needs for the greater good of the organization. This is a wonderful quality … except when it’s not.
We all have strengths that when over-used can be weaknesses (i.e., if one is “decisive,” that’s a good thing – but put “too” in front of “decisive” and it becomes a bad thing). In my boss’ case, his patience and selflessness led him to defer resources (e.g., staff, equipment, funding) that could have helped his division (and thus the organization) grow revenue because “the other department needed it more.”
Now, “speaking truth to power” is always a dicey proposition, so I’d probably suggest that “gentle truths” need to be told only about important matters. If the boss thinks he’s a great golfer and he’s not, this doesn’t need to be shared. If, however, by being “too” something (too selfless, too decisive, etc.) he’s inadvertently hurting those he is trying to serve and protect, this he needs to be told.
(Disclosure: I keep telling him this “gentle truth” … and someday I expect that he will act on it. Until then, we live in hope!)
#3: Help them hear the “voice of the people”
By definition, your boss is one level further removed from “the people” of the organization than you are. If we trust that the wisdom of the organization is on the “shop floor” more than it is in the executive suite, we need to help the boss hear the voice of the shop floor, call center, etc. As always, discretion is the better part of valor, and not everything the company’s workforce is feeling or thinking needs to be shared – but the important things do.
The fact that a policy, or procedure, or other decision may not be popular in the ranks may not change the boss’ decision – but she needs to be told, so that she can make an informed decision taking into account all of the facts and factors. Even if they “don’t want to hear it” at the moment, a true leader will thank you for your candor over the course of time – enhancing your credibility with the leader and your value to the organization.
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What are some ways you’ve seen people “make the boss look good” that benefitted all interests?
- 10 Ways to Infuriate Your Boss (money.usnews.com)
- 9 Ways to be Innovative When Your Boss Isn’t (lifehack.org)
- Harvard Business: Seeing Yourself as Others See You (blogs.hbr.org)
- Get Rave Reviews from Your Boss (money.usnews.com)