Blog: Employees! Promote your Boss

Performance Management

Employees! Promote your Boss

An unabashed, unorthodox perspective on upward mobility which may actually work improve workplaces
Employees! Promote your Boss

No, this is not another rant about the qualities of a leader and how employees can climb on to that pedestal. Actually, quite the reverse. This is about how employees can help motivate their leaders to move up – or out! Simply because one of the ways an employee can move up the corporate ladder is by helping her boss move further up the same ladder.

The paradigm today is that development works in a top down direction: leader develops employee, employee grows. Even employee surveys ask people to rate, on a scale ranging from strongly disagree to fully agree, ‘my supervisor is interested in my professional development’.

For a change, how about: ‘I am interested in my supervisor’s professional development’. Blink, blink? Employee develops leader, leader gets promoted, employee gets promoted! Cool, isn’t it? Except, it’s rare.

By the way, I’ve looked it up. There’s tons of stuff about what leaders need to do to develop their employees. How to keep their employees happy, engaged, motivated and retained. There’s counseling for stressed out employees on how to ‘manage’, even ‘tolerate’, their boss – how to have a good relationship with the boss.

Unfortunately, there’s precious little about what employees can do to help their bosses become greater leaders! Help their boss grow, rather, outgrow her job – so that one of them could rise into it!

One of the workplace’s many realities is that unless the leader moves up, the team below stays down. Many companies even have a policy that determines the first criterion for a promotion to be an open position. Either a new position, or one that has been created by a leader who vacates it.

Consider the middle management level in any large company. That broad corridor of people jammed between the pressure of senior management and the heat from junior staff. The bottleneck starts from the cusp – the point where the highest middle management roles touch the lowest senior management ones. The point where more than one business units tend to dovetail into a single senior leader. Competencies change dramatically!

Obviously, everyone cannot make it into senior management. These mid-management leaders cannot be thrown out either because their contribution is still valued. However, the consequent logjam impacts upward movement all the way down the ladder. Slowing, sometimes altogether stopping, the assembly line.

Such tailbacks create a breed of leaders who employees refer to as a bargad ka pedh – a banyan tree – under which nothing grows. An apt analogy. Every organization has a few leaders who have grown roots. Those complacent experts running their little fiefdoms where only the king is allowed to shine.

Employees unfortunate enough to have such leaders have to be content with the occasional pat on the back and a few scraps as ‘motivation’. The smart ones bow graciously, then exercise their options of either moving laterally, out of the unit, to bypass the banyan tree. Or, out of the company altogether!

Sounds like a pretty viscous situation. But here’s a thought: What’s to prevent employees strategically chipping in to help their boss move up in life?

1. Tracking Job Posts– for the boss! Internal Job Posting mechanisms, wherever they exist, are constantly monitored by employees – usually for their own growth. It would be a good idea to keep an eye open for job posts relevant to the boss as well! And share them when they come up! Most employees do know about their boss’s aspirations, so this should be easy. For those employees who don’t, this could be a good time to find out! It may not happen tomorrow, but every job post selected for the boss is a potential opportunity – for everyone!

2. Headhunter referrals: Many may not realize it, but it is hugely motivating when a headhunter calls and presents an opportunity ‘that matches your profile’. Why not ask the headhunter if she has other mandates – for someone more experienced; for, hypothetically, someone like the boss? Most headhunters will ask the question: ‘would you know someone who…?’ Our mental radar roves around our network of friends. Here’s the opportunity! Recommend the boss! Let the boss also feel motivated and sought after…maybe something will click and she’ll move… Sometimes voluntary attrition can be a good thing!

3. Some PR also works: Speak about the boss positively in public. Leaders who feature negatively in gossip grapevines, sometimes even a single pessimistic reference, lose the opportunity of a promotion – spoiling things for everyone! So why not build that PR, but truthfully, please! Why should the grapevine, the watercooler and the ever awake social media, only be agony aunts! Remember, if the boss looks good, so does the employee, and so does the business unit.

Succession isn’t automatic! Okay, so the foundations have been laid for the boss to move up.Now, help the boss identify her successor!

1. Share the burden: If one is to look at a boss’s ‘things to do’ list, it is usually a combo of some strategic stuff – and some grubby stuff. Employees should reach out and pitch for some of these activities. It frees up boss-time and expands employee understanding on how things are done at her level. Reach out for whatever the boss is willing to part with. Whether it is constructing a presentation, collating some data from various sources, helping with meetings – every little bit helps save boss-time. As trust builds up, the boss may also pass on more strategic activities. Remember, coordinating on behalf of the boss is a power-play surrogate – if not, secretaries and director assistants would only be glorified typists! Such tasks connect the employee to the boss’s network. An opportunity for some well placed visibility toand also to earn the appreciation of other senior leaders in the organization. True, all this needs investments of time – but the benefits grow, like a recurring deposit scheme!

2. Grow your own job: Whether by taking on some of the boss’s tasks or taking on new responsibilities, employees can also grow if they grow their own jobs. Volunteering to lead new projects, opting to do research, or even taking over core tasks from absent peers can help an employee grow their job. When in doubt, ask the question: how can I add more value to the business? Introspection will throw up many new and unique ways to add value.Seek clarity from the boss and proceed. In any organization, there is always plenty to do. Just do it!

3. Demonstrate those competencies: Competencies required for any leadership role are available in the public domain. Any helpful HR person can spell them out blindfolded. I have had countless fruitless interactions with people who believe that their numeric performance alone should assure them of a promotion. To a certain level, maybe. But competencies change significantly for leaders moving from middle management into senior management. It helps to ask the questions: what are these competencies? Do I have them? Where’s the gap? What do I need to do to fill the gap? Then,work towards filling it.

4. Challenge up: The boss is often bound by orders from above. Often, there isn’t time to realize that better, cheaper, faster options are available. Employees can either accept the hand-me-down orders stoically and fulfill them like zombies – or they can challenge up. They can do it as tactfully as a tank – which may have future repercussions, or they could professionally seek amnesty and then state their objection. Bosses are not usually animalistic by nature. They’re usually intelligent human beings. If things are presented logically and in a non-threatening manner, there’s no boss on earth who will not appreciate this act of kindness, benefit from the learning – if only to claim the credit for the success…! Whatever the outcome, challenging up allows the employee to demonstrate an alternate understanding of the situation, their job and the business.

These are all very well. However, none of the above will hold any water if the fundamentals are not met.

1. Meeting targets is vital – and a little more never hurts: This is non-negotiable. No one will ever consider promoting an underperformer – irrespective of whatever co-curricular activities they may have been involved in. Extra efforts and special projects only come to life when the basics have been achieved. Think about it – an underachieving leader? It’s a contradiction in terms!

2. Solid consistent performance– always an asset: Personally, I am not a great fan of top performers. Solid, consistent, just-above-target performers have always worked better. For one thing, the majority of an organization’s workforce sits in this space. The key-word being consistent. Top performers, in my experience, have a limited life span – there’s always a new one each year. In exchange for delivering short bursts of big numbers, this lot brings in arrogance (okay, so they call it ‘attitude’), unpredictable emotions (what they call passion) and camel-like know-it-all airs. Not the best for the rest of the team’s morale, or the unit’s climate. On the other hand, take a solid, consistent and dependable performer. Add in the self-driven initiatives, projects and assignments that have expanded her job way beyond its original description. Bring in some of those demonstrated competencies. The result: a worthy successor! As a leader moving up, would you prefer a successor who is a staccato top performer, or a dependable, consistent performer – given all else being equal?

3. Integrity is fundamental to any kind of success. The definition of integrity swings from basic honesty at one end of the spectrum, to being scam-free at the very other end. However, integrity also refers to more critical success factors, like delivering to the deadline, achieving agreed targets and, most important, following through on commitments. Integrity builds a bridge of trust between employee and boss – with the logical outcome of dependability. An important attribute of a successful potential leader!

The aim of this missive is to deliver two messages to those upwardly mobile folks who have a difficult boss to contend with:

  1. Rather than cribbing, help the boss grow – so that you can step into her shoes
  2. There are several reasons why the boss is the boss. Find out what these are and work towards making yourself worthy of that role

For leaders who feel threatened by over-enthusiastic employees: what’s important is not how you became a leader, but how many leaders you made!

For employees who believe that they have to ‘put up’ with their boss, please remember that the boss has to ‘put up’ with you! So what say you cut her some slack, participate in her development plan so everyone can benefit!

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Topics: Performance Management

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