16 Oct 2016
There could be a better tactic to boost your career than to wow your boss, argues Randall S Peterson
For a successful career, how important is it to impress your boss?
National Boss Day, on 16 October in the US, is designed to improve the relationship between bosses and their teams. It was the brainchild of Patricia Bays Haroski, whose father was also her manager at State Farm Insurance Company. In 1958 she chose her father’s birthday to tell the world that she thought he was a great leader.
While impressing your line manager (and their manager) might feel like an important way to further your career, there are other individuals in your organisation that hold more power, according to Randall S Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School: people that raise you up by endorsement.
How to get noticed: what do senior managers want from their teams?
When you are successful at your job and in good standing with your boss, it is more likely that leaders with the ability to advance your career will notice you. “If you undermine your manager and just go directly to your boss’s boss, understandably, your boss will be concerned that you’re playing a power game. That’s the risk.”
Professor Peterson claims there is a superior method that will help to boost your profile. “You need to be brilliant, and the people spearheading your company’s progress need to know it.”
There are five universal traits that will impress senior leaders in any organisation:
1. Technical brilliance. Do you know your area of expertise, inside and out?
2. Business results. Do you consistently deliver impressive outcomes?
3. Organisational commitment. Do you demonstrate the company values in your work?
4. Interpersonal skills. Can you work across boundaries when you don’t have direct authority?
5. Ambition. Are you prepared to show that you want to get ahead and go out and get it?
“These five characteristics are consistent across countries and cultures. It’s a robust framework for people looking to further their career.”
Think beyond upwardly linear
“You never know who your future boss is going to be,” says Professor Peterson. “People tend to imagine linear moves, but if you look at most careers, that’s just not the case. If you think too upwardly linear, you’re likely to get stuck below a bad boss or a boss who is not ambitious to move on.
“It’s true that your boss’s boss will have a much broader view than just your boss. But other groups, divisions and networks have that ability, too. You need to build a broad set of relationships that connect to your boss’s boss. That’s how you get noticed.”
Take Roberto Goizueta, CEO of The Coca-Cola Company from August 1980 until his death in October 1997: he understood politics. He rose from the company's technical and engineering division to become an American business management icon.
“Goizueta became CEO because he had great relationships across all divisions and the senior leaders knew it. He was a poster child for wielding power through connections. It is why he got the job as well as why he was successful.” During his tenure, where the Coca-Cola brand became the best-known trademark in the world, he continued to build influential relationships with the chairman Robert Woodruff and a network of other leaders across the business.
In Goizueta’s case, unrestricted endorsements were critical to his career. These recommendations, Professor Peterson says, are priceless. “There is no better endorsement than when someone from outside your division tells your boss or your boss’s boss that you’ve impressed them.”
Professor Peterson calls this “collaboration across boundaries”.
“Instead of demonstrating blind loyalty to your division (and managers), consider showing broader commitment – take on work that crosses business units, involve experts at all levels. This sends signals to the coalition of people leading the organisation that you embody the company values, and that you’re ready for the next step.”
Two-way return on investment
Conversely, what do senior leaders gain from breaking down rigid hierarchies and spending time with their junior staff?
Coca Cola’s Goizueta found it hugely beneficial. Professor Peterson notes: “He was confident in his abilities, but also self-aware enough to show his limitations. He asked question after question about markets, facts and figures; this exposed gaps in his knowledge but ultimately helped him to understand the business as a whole.”
He adds that there are two critical benefits for senior managers who spend time being informal with their teams.
“One: you get to know information you otherwise wouldn’t be privy to. You learn about what’s really going on in groups at a lower level, which is part of being a more effective senior leader. Two: it shows that you care. Communicating and engaging with staff that you don’t technically have to engage with earns you respect and has a positive impact on your team’s motivational levels.”
When senior leaders invest time speaking to their juniors and discovering what the real company issues are, it gets them noticed and promotes the leader’s social authority. The paradox is that in order to impress senior leaders, rising stars need endorsements from outside of their divisions: they also need to walk the halls – and build reputations that precede them.