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Manage Up!

August 12, 2002
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When It’s Time to Manage the Boss

 “This time things will be different,” thought Mike Noel, now the retired CFO of a large utility company. Presentation in hand, he strode toward the meeting room.

His presentations to the Board of Directors had become a monthly routine. And each month, he packed his slides with information. But no matter how much data he gathered, his boss, a member of the Board, never seemed quite satisfied. Month after month, Mike left the meeting feeling like somehow, he’d missed the mark. Then he discovered the problem.

During a meeting with a consultant, Mike realized that he and his boss were polar opposites when it came to decision-making styles. Mike wanted to review charts, graphs and stacks of data before making decisions. His boss wanted bullet points – the fewer the better.

Armed with this knowledge, Mike overhauled his routine. As the Board members took their seats, he extracted the summary slide from his presentation. The lights dimmed. He set the slide on the overhead projector.

“This briefly outlines my conclusions and recommendations,” he told the group. “I have eleven other slides that detail my research, if you care to see them.”

The room fell silent. Mike got anxious. Then his boss leaned forward. “Mike,” he said, “that’s the best presentation you’ve ever given us.”

Mike’s story illustrates an effective, yet underutilized strategy employees can use to improve their relationship with a supervisor. Step one: Identify the boss’s strongest preferences. Step two: Use that information to manage the boss.

Ultimately, this strategy raises people’s awareness of the various ways personal preferences color daily interactions. And for HR leaders, this awareness can serve as an excellent starting point to help smooth a variety of supervisor/subordinate troubles.

What makes the boss tick?

Everyone has a set of preferences that is unique to them—which is why employees often find the nature of their job changes when a new boss takes over. Simply put, different supervisors like to manage things differently. Understanding what a particular supervisor prefers when it comes to feedback, teaming, decisions and communication is critical to employees’ success. Yet bosses rarely discuss their personal preferences.

“This type of information just isn’t discussed in daily interactions,” said Brad Harper, president of Trigon Executive Assessment Center in Phoenix. “On some level, supervisors just expect employees to figure it all out.”

But for employees who can’t “figure it out,” a clash of preferences can seriously impede performance and morale. In many cases, HR can help the employee understand how their boss’s preferences may be influencing a situation. Usually, a few preferences stand out above all others, Harper explained. For example, how does the boss prefer to receive feedback, make decisions and team with others? (See sidebar)

Gathering the information isn’t rocket science, but it does take effort. Methods vary from simple observation to using a formal diagnostic tool.


Employees can actively observe their supervisors, keeping an eye out for specific clues. For example, how does their boss present information to the team during meetings? Are the presentations short and targeted, or long and detailed? Does she prefer to multi-task or concentrate on one project at a time?

Asking questions

In many cases, employees can ask questions that clarify preferences. For example, does the boss prefer weekly or monthly status reports? Would he rather review work at every stage or just the final stage? Does he want brief recommendations or a binder of data?

    Using formal tools

Many companies bridge the information gap with targeted consulting sessions, complete with diagnostic tests, reports and debriefs. Ideally, employees leave these facilitated meetings with a better sense of their own work style and how it relates to their boss.

But, cautioned Harper, formal diagnostic tests are not a cure-all.

“The inventories can provide great data,” he said, “but it’s what people do with the data that makes a difference.”

Once an employee defines their supervisor’s key preferences, they need to tailor their behavior accordingly. This may mean altering the way they track and measure progress, present material and conduct meetings.

“In some cases, this may go against a person’s natural inclination,” said Harper. “But the point is for the employee to create a more successful working relationship with their boss, which, ultimately, will improve their own job satisfaction.”

The burden of tailoring behavior falls to the employee because the boss usually has several direct reports, whereas the employee just has one boss. But supervisors aren’t totally off the hook. Savvy managers realize they create healthier, more productive environments when they openly communicate their preferences. For proof, look no further than SCAN Healthcare and the University of Southern California.

Support from the top

It’s been twelve years since Sam Ervin, now retired Chairman and CEO of $400 million SCAN Healthcare in Long Beach, California, began using a formal tool to improve the teamwork of his executives.

At least every two years, Ervin’s executive team fills out the Personal Preference Inventory distributed by Personal Code, Inc. based in Manhattan Beach, California. The team then meets with consultants to discuss their strongest preferences.

“The process not only strengthens the leadership team, it improves working relationships between the executives and their own direct reports,” said Ervin. “The executive team has a common language to share their preferences with others, which definitely helps.”

Martha Harris, Senior Vice President of University Relations for University of Southern California, also encourages her leadership team to recognize and communicate their preferences.

Her team leaders regularly take their work styles into account when they establish expectations for their staff, she said. “I’ve seen firsthand how the ability to communicate preferences stabilizes work teams,” said Harris. “It’s a very constructive process.”

But for some, sharing preferences can be difficult, regardless of how it’s done.

“Some people don’t want their preferences communicated to subordinates because they think it will highlight their weaknesses,” said Mark Gross, President of Leadership Services Limited, an executive consulting firm in Santa Barbara. “But with some facilitation, they begin to understand that preferences are not good or bad, they just are.”

No matter how companies approach this issue, simply raising awareness of preferences is an important step, said Harper.

“It’s common to think, ‘If I satisfy my client, I will be successful,’” he said. “But, fair or not, sometimes that’s not enough. Employees who take proactive steps to understand their boss’s preferences will create a more successful, satisfying environment for themselves.”

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