Are you spending too much time dealing with your bosses? It might seem like that. But the reality is very likely the opposite: In nine out of 10 cases, according to 17 years of research by RainmakerThinking Inc., the problem is not that employees are spending too much time with bosses, but rather, most employees are not spending enough time dealing with their bosses in the right ways.
Most managers and nonmanagers alike are so busy juggling their various responsibilities that they don't usually make time for regular management conversations. Instead, most management conversations occur ad hoc: maybe during group meetings, even if many of the people present at the meeting don't need to be part of that conversation; in sudden emails and voicemails; in passing; or when there is a big problem that desperately needs attention.
I call this phenomenon "management on-the-fly" or "management by special occasion." There is no systematic logic to the timing of management conversations, and in fact, they are random, incomplete, and often too late to avoid a problem or solve one before it grows large.
The only alternative to being subjected to management on-the-fly and management by special occasion is for you to get in the habit of having regular one-on-one management conversations with every boss you answer to. The hard part is actually getting in the habit of making time every day to manage your bosses. New behaviors, no matter how good they are, often don't feel comfortable until they become habits. It will take time to get used to the new behaviors, not just for you, but also for the bosses you are going to manage more closely.
After you've built more effective boss-managing habits, you'll still have to deal with unexpected problems, but they won't be the kinds of problems that could have been avoided. And although you'll still have to face plenty of difficult challenges when dealing with your bosses, your working relationships with them will be in such good shape that you'll be able to handle those challenges effectively with confidence and skill.
So take the initiative. Schedule regular one-on-one management meetings with your bosses.
When, how often, and for how long?
How often you should meet with your boss or bosses depends partly on the nature of the work in which you are engaged with each of them. How often you should meet with a particular manager will also be determined by her particular style and preferences and also by what works for you. In an ideal world, maybe you would talk with every single boss (reviewing your work and getting set up for success that day) every single day. Some bosses need more attention than others. Talking to every boss every day is not always possible and may not be ideal.
Of course, every situation is different. With some bosses you may be able to schedule regular meetings at fixed days and times. But if your boss has an irregular schedule, then the best practice is to finish each one-on-one conversation with that boss by scheduling the next one.
You should meet more often with a boss if any of the following apply:
- if you are working with a boss for the first time
- if you are working with a boss on a new project
- if you are working with a boss on a project with especially high stakes
- if you are working with a boss on a project where there is a lot of uncertainty.
The last thing in the world you want to do is make bad use of any boss's time by meeting more often than necessary or wasting time during those meetings. Keep your management conversations brief, straightforward, and to the point. As long as you conduct these one-on-one conversations regularly, there is no reason they should be long and convoluted.
The goal is to make these conversations focused, efficient, brief, and simple. Prepare in advance so that you can move the conversation along swiftly. Once you've gotten into a routine with each boss, 15 minutes every week or every other week should be all you need. Like everything else, it's a moving target. Over time, you'll have to gauge how much time you need to spend with each boss.
If things are not going well on a particular assignment, consider meeting with your boss every day for a while. Don't make the mistake of spending hours on tearful inquisitions, indictments, or confessions. Keep these meetings short and consistent. There's a strong chance that things are not working out because you are not getting enough guidance, direction, and support. Once you spend more time with your boss talking through the work you are doing, you are likely to work through solutions to 99 percent of your problems.
If things are going very well with your work, do you need to spend 15 minutes every day or even every week with that boss? Maybe you need to meet with that boss only every other week. But if you don't spend at least that much time with that boss, then you don't actually know whether things are going as well as you think they are. All you really know is that no problems have come up on your or your boss's radar screen. Spend those 15 minutes verifying that things are indeed going as well as you think they are, and then maybe start discussing how to make things go even better.
Talk about your work
The fundamental goal of one-on-one meetings is to talk about your work! One-on-ones are your opportunity to maintain an ongoing dialogue with every boss about the four management basics:
- what is expected of you
- the resources you need to meet those expectations
- honest feedback of your performance and guidance on how to adjust it as necessary
- what credit and reward you will earn for your hard work.
Prepare before every one-on-one by asking yourself: Are there problems that haven't been spotted yet? Problems that need to be solved? Resources that need to be obtained? Are there any instructions or goals that are not clear? Has anything happened since we last talked that the boss should know about? Are there questions that need to be answered by your boss?
At the very least, in these one-on-ones, you need to receive updates on your progress. Get input from your boss while you have the chance. And think about what input you should be providing to the boss based on what you are learning on the front line. Strategize together. Try to get a little advice, support, motivation, and, yes, even inspiration once in a while.