Lynn started having problems with her boss soon after she was promoted into a senior management role. She had been excited to start working closely with the company’s CEO, Joseph, who was known as a brilliant thought leader, and whose mentorship she was looking forward to as a new leader, herself. But within a few months, she was bewildered and frustrated because she was not getting the guidance or support from him that she needed to succeed.
This lack of support showed up in numerous ways. When she gave Joseph new items to review or approve, he didn’t get them back to her before her deadlines. He had also scheduled a standing one-on-one meeting with her each week, only to cancel 80% of the time. He stated that this happened because he needed to put out fires or deal with other more urgent issues, but it still impacted Lynn. When she took the initiative to bring project ideas to him, he went weeks without getting back to her and was dismissive when she reminded him she was awaiting his input.
No matter what she tried, Lynn seemed unable get his support, let alone the mentoring she’d planned on.
When they finally sat down together after two months of cancelled meetings and unresponsiveness, Lynn’s boss was surprised and frustrated by her lack of progress on her projects and objectives. This was the last straw for her. She felt unable to be effective in her role, but it was her boss’s lack of support and timely communication that put her in this predicament. It made her feel that she was being set up for failure despite all her efforts. Lynn wondered if she should change jobs, but she didn’t want to give up so easily.
In an effort to find a solution, Lynn came into coaching, full of these grievances and looking for new ideas to “manage up” more effectively.
To me, Lynn’s anger with her boss for not providing the “proper” mentoring and guidance sounded like the well-meaning but misguided perspective of a newbie — not someone who was meeting the challenges of being in an upper management role. She had been promoted for outstanding performance, but Lynn had not yet learned to pave her own way; instead relying on external guidance and approval.
Her first challenge would be to transform her perspective about this situation— to understand that it would be her responsibility to achieve her objectives, not her boss’s. And this would be her responsibility whether or not those objectives were reasonable, or even possible, to achieve. The role of a true leader is to find a way. If success were easy, a leader would not be needed.
Lynn had started down the right track by thinking that she needed to work with Joseph’s style in order for them both to shine. Her first mistake had been in thinking that she could somehow influence his behavior in the process, to meet her expectations for support and mentorship. In reality, her boss was unlikely to ever have time to meet weekly, reply to every email, or be an active mentor. Any effort she made to make this happen would be wasted energy.
To frame this situation in a more realistic and empowering way, we generated some strategies for managing up, which didn’t depend on her boss changing his behavior. Instead, she needed to work with who he was to help her achieve her objectives in a way that also supported his style:
Concept: Go to your boss with an executive summary of your ideas, the benefits of moving forward, and any specific action you need from him to move forward on your own.
Instead of coming to the boss expecting him to review and approve your idea, approach it with the assumption that you plan to move forward. Then focus on specific actions that you need from him– such as approval for hiring or allocation of a budget. Be ready with supporting data so you can get the resources you need. Keep his action list focused on tasks only your boss could complete.
Concept: Take charge and move forward, making the positive assumption. Then report progress frequently in short bullets.
When you feel that you need your boss’s approval to move forward, tell him what you plan to do and have him respond only if he does NOT approve. That way if he’s okay with it, all he has to do is not respond – and if he’s not sure, he can contact you to discuss.
Concept: Avoid scheduling meetings with a boss who regularly cancels or forgets.
His behavior is telling you something. He does not have a predictable enough schedule or feel it’s a high enough priority to oversee your work in detail. Instead, send short emails. If he schedules meetings that are likely to be canceled, plan an alternate way to spend that time if he cancels, so you don’t waste time waiting around.
Concept: Find ways to get your mentoring and coaching elsewhere if your boss isn’t great at it.
Take control of your professional growth instead of depending on your boss to do it for you. Nahid Coaching and Mentoring offers coaching programs for independent professionals, and core leadership skills that could help you take charge of your own growth. Also consider joining a leadership forum or schedule some coaching calls to work on your skills.
What Lynn Did
It was a shock to Lynn that she needed to shift her approach and expectations of her boss, but she was willing to give it a try. She tried taking initiative by reframing emails in a format that allowed him to just give her a “go” or “no-go”. He seemed relieved and responded quickly, which encouraged her.
She learned to come up with her own vision and goals, instead of depending on her boss to provide these. She limited her requests from him to things only he could do, asking him for very specific actions that would support her objectives. She framed questions so that he could say “yes” or “no” in a brief hallway conversation, which was much more effective than trying to meet.
After a few individual coaching sessions, she joined our CORE Leadership Development group and started bonding with other new leaders in similar positions. With this support, she found she got even better support and guidance from Joseph. Upon reflection, she realized this was because she’d gained new insight into how others worked strategically handling similar issues, even in very different types of companies or industries.
What Lynn Learned and How She Grew
Every once in a while, we get a great boss who is also a great mentor, but those are few and far between. If we are lucky, we only get a few in the course of our career. Most of the time our bosses are struggling with their own issues and even when they do take time with us, they can only provide guidance based on what worked for them. They lead more by example than through direct guidance.
Lynn learned that she couldn’t depend on her boss to help her grow as a leader. Once she realized this, avenues opened up that allowed her to work with him more effectively. She found that she could get her needs met from others, which freed her up to worry less about the relationship she had with him and to focus on getting what she needed to be successful on her own.
Lynn also realized that mentoring doesn’t have to be an official relationship. She’s even found it more effective to have a whole list of people she admires for specific traits, characteristics, or abilities she aspires to. She found informal mentors in her company and in her network, as well as within the Aspire Group Program, where she gets support from an entire community.
Since cultivating this network, Lynn has been able learn from people by hearing their experiences, learning their thought process in making decisions, and by observing their work habits. She takes the gems from these observations and adopts what most resonates for her. If she faces challenges at work — or feels stuck, she can tap into the group for advice and support anytime. She’s also finding that she can meet her objectives without her boss holding her hand, and there is less tension between them because of it. He even gave her positive feedback for taking on a few large initiatives and making them happen.
Fortunately for Lynn, she was able to successfully navigate the transition into senior leadership without calling attention to her rough start. And she is now enjoying great results and an excellent relationship with her boss.
I’ve coached a large number of senior leaders and executives over the years. Many of them tell me similar stories to Lynn’s, in that it’s a big leap to step from a management role into that of a senior leader. That may be where the saying, “It’s lonely at the top” got started.
I always recommend that my clients join some type of peer group in these situations for just that reason. And often individual coaching, reading, and observations of other successful leaders can make a positive difference for you, as well. Feel free to look over our CORE Leadership Development Coaching Program if you’d like, as it may offer just what you need to better ensure your success in leadership.