It is tough to lead an organization, a department or a team. There are challenges to it. Yet in many ways it is easier to lead than to be a foot soldier, as bosses have far more freedom. Leaders are paid to take on responsibility and to bring out the greatness of the people around them. We should help them to do that.
Three out of four employees say their boss is the worst and most stressful part of their job, and 65 per cent say they’d prefer a new boss to a pay rise. Something is broken.
The more senior that people become, the harder it can be for them to learn how they are doing. Staff are often nervous about giving the boss feedback, as they believe it might damage their career. If you want to be free, you have to help your boss to be amazing. If they are crap, it’s your fault.
I come across countless senior executives who behave terribly. When I talk to their direct reports they are constantly bemoaning what their boss gets up to and how awful it is for the culture. And yet when I ask them what they have done about it, the answer is usually pretty much nothing. Occasionally they may have contracted a consultant to coach the boss on how to be more effective, but it hadn’t taken root and so they’d just carried on. More often than not they just avoid a difficult conversation and decide it’s better to be beaten up than to take the risk of helping their boss to grow.
I appreciate that certain leaders are not up for changing – they may have become so set in their ways and so reliant upon their past identity that it is now almost impossible for them to shift. You then have to choose whether, under their leadership, you can be as free as you want to be, or whether you need to find that freedom somewhere else. Either way, you’ll get the liberty you need.
I worked for a business once where the sales director was in that ‘old school’ camp. He played the ‘if you look after me, I’ll look after you’ card. He was so resistant to me advancing my career that I had two clear choices. Play his game, edge forward slowly and always be his slave, or find a more senior sponsor in brand marketing to get me out of there and never get his support again. I chose the latter.
It worked and I got the role I wanted, but it was risky and I lost a buddy in sales. At the time I wasn’t confident enough to have the right conversation with him and decided he was better avoided. I have never made that mistake again. Much better to get the moose on the table and have the grown-up chat.
In truth, everybody wants to grow and everybody wants to have more impact. So although some leaders are tough to get through to, you must not give up. Because of a lack of feedback, many senior executives have little awareness of their impact. If they did, thousands of days of work putting together pointless Powerpoint decks would be saved the world over!
If the leader decides that the feedback is inappropriate, then at least you can have that conversation and work out how best to support them. By avoiding it you guarantee one thing; nothing will change and most likely it will get worse.
So how should that conversation go?
Quite simply follow the process of Fact – Think – Feel.
Before diving into that conversation, make sure that your intention is good and that you are here to help your boss. This is not about venting your wrath or about jabbing them in the ribs. It’s about offering your support to help them get better so you can all do a better job.
Set a clear context: this conversation is about sharing with them some things that you have spotted that could help them have more impact. Let them know that you are not wedded to an outcome from this, beyond that they get to hear it. You cannot solve the problem if you don’t agree.
It may go something like this:
Fact: ‘The last four times that we have gathered as a team you have arrived at least ten minutes late.’
Think: ‘I know you are busy, but the message you are sending out is that those meetings aren’t very important and that your time is more valuable than ours.’
Feel: ‘My reaction to this is that I also wonder if getting together is so important. I don’t really look forward to those sessions, as late starts mean late finishes, and my whole diary gets screwed up as a result.’
As these facts are data points, it’s important that you agree on them. How you think about them and how you then feel is your choice and therefore must be owned by you.
Your boss could react in any number of ways.
For example, ‘Tough. I am the boss and that’s the way it goes. Get over it.’ Then you will be much clearer about who you work for and you can take that into consideration when planning your career.
Or, ‘What you don’t know is that I meet with the MD just before that meeting, and he always overruns, which makes me late.’ In which case together you can come up with solutions (‘Let’s reschedule our meeting to start an hour later’).
Or, and in my experience most likely, ‘Fair play to you, I have been late recently and I appreciate that doesn’t start the meeting well and sends out the wrong signals. I will get there early from now on and would appreciate it if you could help me with that. Thanks for pointing it out to me.’
Regardless of how they react, what you have done is claim some freedom. You have acted to improve the situation and whether your action is valued or not doesn’t matter, because you have done what you should have. Whatever happens, you will have learned more about the situation and how to deal with it in the future, and also how to deal with your boss.
It’s estimated that crap bosses cost the US economy $360 billion a year. We have to take action to help them improve.
You are in the driving seat of your career, nobody else.