As a young assistant several years ago, I remember sitting across from my boss, getting a scolding and eventually hearing her say those words to me. I also remember thinking that she must be crazy if she thought that my purpose as a smart, educated and able young woman was to cater to her ego and help give a good impression of herself to the people she reported to and to our other colleagues. And at that very moment, sat in that chair across from her at her desk, I loathed working for her.
You’re probably wondering what would have led to us having such a conversation in the first place. Well, I dared to disagree with her and challenge her point of view in a meeting where the ‘big guys’ and the ‘little guys’ were present. It was bad enough that I spoke in the first place, because it was her presentation (never mind that I had done the first draft). But, to compound my problems, I used facts to support my argument and render hers almost invalid. So, of course, it didn’t look very good. It was a line manager’s worst nightmare – a (more) knowledgeable assistant who had no reservations with showing him/her up.
And so, I got the talk-down of my life.
The truth is, I was young and naïve, eager to please and show that I had something to offer. I wanted to be heard and reckoned with. I wanted to be recognized and commended for my intelligence. I genuinely believed that that was all I needed to get ahead. For months after that talk, I resented her for making me feel little, for making me feel like an errand girl. I resented her for forcing me to be quiet when I would rather speak and for taking all the credit for the work we (I) did. It took me forever to see the wisdom in that statement she had made, to fully understand it and to begin to act on it. But once I put my emotions aside, I could see where she was coming from and I understood the benefits of what she was saying.
You see, she wasn’t asking me to worship the ground she walked on. Neither was she asking me to do ‘eye-service’. She wasn’t asking me not to have a point of view, or not to express it. She was giving me valuable lessons in stakeholder management and ‘managing upwards’. What I had done to her in that meeting room should never have happened. If I had understood my role as a subordinate, I would have known better than to act the way I did; I would have done a better job of making her look good.
Now, let me break down what that means, the way I see it, and the way it has worked for me.
We often expect that our bosses have more experience than we do – which is often the case (but not always). But we also expect that the fact that they are boss also means that they would know more about our work than we do. Sometimes, that’s the case. But again, not always. The truth is managers are not paid to do the work. They are paid to get people to do the work – their job is to lead and direct and get their teams to work towards an agreed goal. So their ability to do the actual work isn’t as important as their ability to pull people together to do it and get results. Which is why the farther up the career ladder one climbs, the fewer the tasks they have to perform. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
So when my line manager says to me that my job is to make her look good, it means that with every task I perform, I should ensure that it makes her role as a manager easier. If she asks me to prepare a report, I should make sure I prepare it to the highest level of detail so that she doesn’t have to spend time trying to correct errors, or god forbid, she doesn’t go into a meeting and end up presenting wrong information. If she asks me to work on a presentation, I must ensure that it is done to a very high standard and that it gives her all the information she needs to deliver a good presentation.
Even more important is the matter of knowing something (more) better than her. If I have more information or knowledge, I should share it with her, show her the best way to use it to make her case where necessary and make sure I don’t do anything that makes it obvious to others that I’m the brains behind her (our) work – that’s her prerogative. She may or may not decide to openly give me credit for what I do, openly being the operative word.
Now, if you’re like my younger self, you’re probably thinking “Why the hell should I have to bother with this? Is it my fault if my boss isn’t quite as smart as I am? Why shouldn’t I get all the credit for the work I do?” These are all valid questions and it wouldn’t be surprising if you asked them. But instead of answering the questions directly, I’ll tell you how that meeting where I opened my smart mouth, could have gone better.
My boss had asked me to do the draft presentation. I did it and sent it to her and of course she modified it to suit her taste and purpose before presenting it. I didn’t quite agree with everything she had asked me to put in the presentation, but I didn’t tell her either, because I didn’t think it was my place to do that. That was mistake number one. I should have gone to her with my concerns and explained why I disagreed and given her the facts that corroborated my argument. That would have done two things for me – it would have increased her level of trust in my abilities and it would have shown her that I was a team player.
Then we went into the meeting. And she started to talk and she said things that weren’t correct. And I thought it was my place to correct her right there, with everyone looking and in a very ‘oversabi’ kind of way. That was mistake number two. Instead, I could have passed her a note with the correct info and she might have had a chance to backtrack and correct the impression gracefully. Or I could have left well alone and then told her about it after the meeting, when it was just the two of us, so that she could figure out the best way to fix the situation. That would also have done two things for me – it would have shown a high level of emotional intelligence on my part (knowing when (or not) to speak and how) and it would have put her in a place where she ‘owed’ me because I had ‘done her a favour’ by saving her embarrassment.
So just by doing things a little differently, I would have gotten a completely different and much better outcome and it would have been the basis of a more fruitful relationship with my boss. Sadly, it took a long while before I got to that point and by the time I did, it was time to move to another boss. But I took those learnings into the next relationship and work became more enjoyable.
A manager is only as good as his/her team, so you’ve got to realise that if your manager looks bad, it rubs off on you – people will assume that you’re not very useful. If you bear that in mind, then you will strive to make sure that your boss makes a good impression. Do the work, get the details, then give them the summary and call out the high points. Give them the ammunition to fight their battles and the shields to keep themselves ‘safe’. You are not in competition with your boss – that’s not the right attitude for being a subordinate. So don’t hoard information/knowledge and then throw it out in the open because you want to look smart. Nothing good can come from that. For one, your boss will never say anything positive about you to others and the people you are trying to impress will see you as a loose cannon. That’s your career dead in the water.
If you want to get credit for your work, focus on getting the credit first from your boss (not from the rest of the world). Let him/her see that you put in the effort and you do it dedicatedly. Let your results speak for you. Once your boss starts to see the value you are adding to him/her, you become indispensable and he/she will start to look for ways to reward you. One of these ways might be showing you off in meetings such as the one I spoke about earlier. My boss could have decided that I would be the one to make the presentation, so that I could showcase my knowledge. And I would have gotten the recognition I was so badly (and prematurely) looking for.
Other ways to reward you would be pay increases and a hefty bonus at the end of the year. But if you’re not the money type, those may not be enough. Your boss could also look out for career growth opportunities for you – He/she may hear about a position opening and decide to put you forward for it. And if you’ve done a fantastic job of making him/her look good, then you can rest assured that the recommendation you’ll get will be stellar. You also stand a better chance of learning more from him/her, as they would be willing to teach you the things they know. But if you’re one of those ITK people, your boss would happily sit by and watch you remain exactly where you are. He/she won’t be interested in helping you improve and that often means you won’t get an outstanding performance rating at the end of the year.
Of course, not all bosses act in good faith. You might meet a real piece of work who, despite all you do, refuses to make you feel appreciated and does nothing for your career progress – there will always be exceptions to the rule. But don’t let that discourage you from doing the right thing. With this kind of person, trying to show them up will only make things worse for you. You might end up being victimized and that’s not a nice place to be.
At the heart of this matter is humility. And that’s the lesson I’m hoping you take away from this. You’ve got to be humble to be able to put your boss first. Humility requires you to align any and everything with your boss before sending it out, even when you know it’s perfect. Humility requires you to give in to your boss’s argument when it is superior to yours, irrespective of how smart or knowledgeable you are. Humility requires you to take your great ideas to your boss, make him/her feel like it’s his/her own idea and watch him/her present it and take the credit. Humility requires you to ask your boss for direction whether or not you know what to do. It requires you to open yourself to learning from and being taught by your boss even if you think you know more. It requires you to be able to take the feedback your boss gives you and act on it, whether you’re comfortable with it or not.
And it’s not easy, because we all have our individual personalities and beliefs, and they will not always be in agreement with who we work for. But if you want to have a richer work experience, work on building a good relationship with your boss and the rest will be added unto you.
Now you know how to be a subordinate. So go and be it, and make your boss look good!
What ‘horrible boss’ stories do you have?