Managing a New Boss

Here’s a tip that may help you for the remainder of your career. If you want to succeed, don’t expect your boss to manage you. Instead, you must learn to manage your boss. Success doesn’t always come from doing your job well. More often, it comes from making your manager look good.

“To move up in a company, you have to manage your boss,” says Penelope Trunk, a former company owner who writes about careers. Ms. Trunk, author of “Brazen Careerist: New Rules for Success” (Warner Books), says many bosses are poor managers who struggle to organize their own workloads. They often are so overwhelmed they can’t delegate or help subordinates organize their work.

“So you need to find out what’s important to your boss,” says Ms. Trunk. “If you can help with it, you will be a huge asset.”

Your first task is to set up a meeting with your manager as soon as possible, says Arlene Hirsch, a career counselor in Chicago. Don’t use the electronic instant messaging to send your request, since it’s typically reserved for urgent priorities. Sending an email may be the best way to communicate about this since your manager can read it during a quiet moment.

Say in the note you would like to meet to establish your objectives for the next performance period and find out how you will be evaluated, says Ms. Hirsch, author of “Job Search and Career Checklists” (JIST Works, 2005). Then, during the meeting, ask what the department’s highest priority is for the next quarter or year, whatever the measurement period is. If your boss says something vague, such as, “We need to hit our numbers,” ask what you can do to help achieve that goal, says Ms. Trunk. “You have to keep asking, and the answers can’t be vague,” she says. Try to come up with several objectives and tasks to accomplish them in this way.

If your boss still can’t tell you what your goals are, you must help her to establish them. Have your job description with you and use it now to guide the conversation, Ms. Hirsch suggests. Ask if the two of you can review it together to determine your priorities. “If the description says you are responsible for X, then ask how often you need to do this, how this task has historically been done and what would be considered a good result,” she says.

By the end of the meeting, you should be able to agree on at least three priorities, but keep your list to no more than five. Write down what you think was decided and then give the list to your manager to review and edit. “This way, you have your boss’s buy-in for what you should be doing,” Ms. Hirsch says.

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