On the Clock

Surviving Your Boss: 4 Ways to Become Indispensable

Cultivating a relationship with your manager is critical for a successful career. First in a series.

Forget, for a second, about your job title or description or even your mounting to-do list. Here’s the only thing you really need to know for your job right now: learn to make your boss look good.

Yes, it’s important for you to have a career path, learn new skills, and up your emotional intelligence. But at the end of the day, your boss has the biggest influence on your job—and your future.

A cornerstone for all good boss-employee relationships is follow-through.

That’s what makes these relationships so tricky—bosses are the No. 1 reason people leave their jobs, but can also be the No. 1 reason a person is propelled into the C-suite. Which is why one of the best career moves you can make is to become indispensable to him or her. “Your boss has the biggest influence on your current job and your career trajectory,” says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

To be sure, the relationship is complicated. There’s a fine line between ensuring you’re doing everything you can to become your boss’s right hand and not respecting boundaries—your boss most likely isn’t going to become your best friend. And while you can (and should) be candid with your boss, that doesn’t mean you can unleash your work woes haphazardly. Here’s how to start—or reset—your relationship with your boss.

Do what you say you’ll do.

A cornerstone for all good boss-employee relationships is follow-through, whether it’s bringing ideas to the next brainstorm meeting or reminding your boss about a 10 a.m. call. Whatever the case, your boss needs a reason to turn to you.

“Are you capable enough for the boss to hand over a task with complete confidence that it will be done on time and with high quality?” asks Mark Royal, a senior director at Korn Ferry. “Such that the boss doesn’t need to give it a second thought?” That’s the standard to aim for. 

Be in constant communication.

It’s easier said than done. But you’d be surprised how many bosses—and, in turn, their direct reports—are horrible communicators. Which is all the more reason to make learning your boss’s way of communicating a priority. Is your boss someone who emails only once a day, but calls no fewer than 10 times before noon? Or one who is silent for a week, but every Friday is in your office at 9 a.m. sharp asking for updates, status reports, and new client leads?

The best way to decode your boss’s preferences is to assume communication won’t be clear. That way, you’ll be forced to clarify what he or she wants, putting you in a proactive state, instead of waiting until that report you submitted to get redlined or thrown back to you for a redo. Which still may happen. But at least you’ll know, from your stellar communication, how to take the next crack at it. 

Have others sing your praises.

Even though we hear it all the time, we often don’t know how good something is until we get affirmation from outsiders. This human tendency, coupled with the fact that trust isn’t easily earned, is exactly why your boss isn’t going to see your talents in full scope until he or she hears about them from others.

Kelly, a vice president at a communications firm, saw her relationship with her boss improve after he heard clients gush over her work. But her breakthrough took time. To speed up the process, you may be able to subtly pass along the message yourself. If a client or colleague sends a thank-you email, you can cc your boss on your reply. Another tactic to try, if you’re a manager, is to praise those who report to you. If you highlight the successes of those below you, it will also show your ability to lead. 

Manage up.

We hear this phrase all the time. But to really manage up is to give your boss what he or she needs before they even ask you about it. And to do it in a way that’s pretty subtle—because if you’re constantly mentioning what you just did, you’ll come off as a pest.

Sounds tough, right? Well, it is. And it takes time to cultivate the capability, because it’s a combination of hard skills—being able to produce the report to the boss’s standards by deadline—and soft skills—having the emotional intelligence to understand what makes your boss tick.

That’s why one of the best ways to manage up, and to that end, become indispensable, is to do your job well. “Managing up implies a focus on the impression you create with your boss,” Royal says. “It’s better to devote that energy and attention to making yourself invaluable in more fundamental ways. Bosses move on. You’re more likely to find that you remain indispensable over time if you invest in your performance.”

Up Next: How to handle a bored boss.

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