Want to look good?

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

Industry insiders can offer valuable advice about a chosen career path, but there’s a right way to do it, WALLACE IMMEN writes

From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, September 20, 2006

Want to climb faster up the corporate ladder? Try giving the person on the rung ahead of you a boost, career pros suggest.

Sure, you want to make yourself look good in your career. And one of the winning ways to make yourself look good is to make your boss look good, the pros say.

“It all comes down to the reality that teams don’t get promoted, individuals do,” says Elizabeth Murphy, president of Toronto-based leadership coaching firm Rutters/E.R. Murphy & Associates Ltd.

And you can identify yourself as that worthy individual by demonstrating you have unique strengths that are useful to the leader, Ms. Murphy says.

“Being the employee the boss considers essential to his or her success makes you the one most likely to get carried along to the next level when the manager takes the next step up,” she says.

But this is not about becoming a boot-polishing lackey, she emphasizes. In fact, always saying yes can actually be a formula for failure.

“Many people assume that, to be in favour, you’ve got to agree with the boss and do what you’re told,” Ms.  they need when the chips are down,” she explains.

So how do you identify the gaps you can fill?

Study whether your boss’s leadership style is personal or impersonal, and what things they are good at and things they prefer to delegate, suggests career coach Colleen Clarke, president of Colleen Clarke and Associates in Toronto.

Your initial offers of assistance should start informally until you gain your boss’s confidence, Ms. Clarke suggests. Rather than asking for a meeting with a manager, who can be under enormous time pressure, look for opportunities to talk when between tasks, such as when the boss is headed down the hall for a coffee or in the elevator on the way to work.

“It can be lonely at the top and if you make an effort to reach the boss informally, it opens a dialogue,” Ms. Clarke says.

The boss will want to spend some time listening if you offer insights. “The ideal is something you’ve read lately that would help the boss succeed, or a suggestion about what a competitor is doing. But something intelligent about anything that is happening in the office will show you are observant and aware.”

One thing every manager needs is a source of information about how changes are playing out in the trenches, Ms. Clarke suggests. This is not to say become a mole or a gossip, but an adviser and go-between. “You can suggest what works and what doesn’t, with practical examples and not just theory.”

But you want to be a source of support rather than a bearer of bad tidings. If something needs improvement, be prepared with a couple of suggestions if the boss asks for them, Ms. Clarke says.

Be supportive, but be willing to offer a constructive alternative to something you don’t agree with or you know will meet resistance from the team, Ms. Clarke recommends.

For example, acknowledge you’ve understood a concept as presented by the boss and perhaps say: “That’s interesting.” Then present your thoughts by using a bridge word, such as “however” or “and.”

Avoid using the word “but” because it implies you’ve rejected the idea, she says.

If, despite your input, you think the plan remains flawed, it’s best not to publicly air your objections. “It’s a done deal, so you might as well do the best you can to make it work.”

It’s a matter of always acknowledging the boss’s authority and experience at all times, Ms. Murphy advises.

Even if you conclude that you have a better idea than your boss, you should avoid the temptation to try to do an end-run and take it to a higher-level manager, she says. That will be seen as an attempt to undermine your boss’s authority.

If the boss is skeptical of your approach, you can press your point and still remain supportive by saying something like: “I know this is not something you would normally do, but I believe, in this situation, it will get results,” she suggests.

And what if your idea works, but the leader takes all the credit for it and leaves you out of the spotlight?

By all means, you deserve credit, and you should make a point of reminding the boss of your role, Ms. Murphy says.

“Remember that your goal shouldn’t be just to sound off that you are upset about not getting credit, but to point out that you’ve been putting in an effort that supports the boss and is worthy of recognition.”

If you don’t receive any recognition, it can be ego-numbing, but being the unsung hero can still play to your advantage, she says.

“The person knows you have been doing more than your share, and he or she will not be able to take on a new position without your help,” so it is likely that you will be promoted when your boss is promoted.

Of course, there’s a risk that getting close to the boss can raise the jealousy of co-workers. “This is a real balancing act, because if you take playing up to the boss too far, you will get a reputation among your colleagues for being a suck-up,” Ms. Murphy says.

So it’s best if you are upfront about having the ear of the boss, she suggests. Point out you’ve worked hard to be in this position. “Don’t put it down to some kind of political thing that you’re lucky about,” Ms. Murphy says.

It’s important you always show great support for the team and give thanks for contributions of all members, she cautions.

It all comes down to corporate survival. “Any organization is like a tribe on a desert island,” Ms. Murphy says. “Everyone has to work together to survive.”

“You have to be aware of what is important to the boss and provide it, but you also have to be seen as essential to the survival of the whole group. That’s how you rise in authority.”

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Moves to make

Want to boost your boss to boost yourself? Here are tips from career coaches:

Fill in the gaps. Identify the boss’s weaknesses, match them to your strengths and offer to take on tasks the boss considers a burden.

Provide what’s needed. Learn what is expected by management for your boss to succeed, and make sure you offer ideas to help him or her meet those goals.

Don’t be a yes man or woman. Be someone with original ideas and alternatives to offer, rather than someone who continually agrees and doesn’t provide input.

Be sympathetic. It can be lonely at the top and you will be valued if you lend an informal ear to a boss’s concerns.

Become an expert. Individuals who become indispensable to the boss in carrying out a certain aspect of the company’s function will usually be promoted, even if a new title has to be created.

Stay visible. Remain on the boss’s radar screen by reporting in regularly.

Identify potential storms. You are closer to the daily concerns of the team than the boss. If you see issues of concern, you can become seen as an adviser on how to address problems.

Leave gripes unspoken. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Never bash the boss in public. Don’t join others in doing so.

Offer praise. Compliment your boss to your co-workers and other supervisors when justified. Be honest, however. A phony attempt can be detected immediately.

Don’t jump the queue. If you have an idea for improving the operation, present it to your boss and avoid the temptation to take it to the top. If the boss chooses to take the credit, remind him or her of your role at salary review time.

Be a team player. Highlight the contributions of the team. This builds trust, eliminates jealousy and indicates your ability to facilitate good work.

Be effective. It may seem obvious, but handle your work efficiently and thoroughly. If your boss is fair, he or she will give you credit for the work, increasing your chances of promotion.