Help Your Boss Succeed

A key to your success is to help your boss succeed. This sounds like Suck up to Your Boss, but it really just recognizes the symbiotic relationship you (hopefully) share with your boss. Resources - staff and money - are made available to your boss, the team, and eventually you, based on the team's overall performance. Any way you can increase your boss' effectiveness or reduce their workload pays dividends to your career. Perhaps you'll even learn enough from helping your boss to get promoted!



If your boss was recently promoted, they'll find a much heavier communications workload - the first challenge they have to face. Suddenly they interact not only with the team, but the work group's clients and suppliers. They field calls from all over the company - for setting up office space, phones, computer equipment, etc. And on top of that they have to contend with their boss and perhaps a few levels higher. So how do you reduce that workload and make their communications more effective and efficient?

  1. Minimize interruptions.[1] Time is your boss' most limited resource. Interruptions not only take up time, but people lose their train of thought and take additional time to recover. At least bunch up your questions to cut down on the number of interruptions.
  2. Learn how and when to interrupt. Each person has different preferences as to what media they prefer to work with[2] as well as when during the day they prefer to deal with interruptions. Do you use IM, drop into their office or send them an e-mail or a phone call? It's critically important for you to understand your boss' preferences in this area.
  3. Know how to communicate in an emergency. If there is a crisis affecting a client, how soon should you notify your boss? Should you make a call at 2 AM to let them know or just email them?
  4. Know what information helps them best make a decision. Again, each boss has different preferences in how much information they need, what types of information, when, etc. Here are some alternatives.
    • Just present the problem, they'll solve it. Generally, however, bosses don't want to see problems without a recommended solution.
    • Present the problem and a single recommended solution. Some bosses will trust your judgment and go with your recommendation. Other bosses want to see alternatives along with pros and cons.
    • Present the problem and several alternative solutions, along with a recommendation. For some bosses, alternative solutions are just a waste of effort, but other bosses demand to see alternatives.
  5. Provide data in the right volume and format.
    • Some people want to see just a few summary numbers, while others want pages and pages, seen from a variety of angles.
    • For format, some want to see pie charts, bar charts with trends, etc. to summarize data at a high level. Others will want to see tables of numbers. Also watch to see what font and point size your boss and peers prefer.
  6. Keep a notebook for meetings. For some bosses, going to a meeting without a notebook and pen is considered an insult. A 6" by 9" spiral bound notebook is a good idea, since it keeps notes in date order and you avoid filing. One notebook serves for all your meetings.
  7. Ask your boss what's going on elsewhere in the corporation. For some odd reason, this topic is frequently omitted. It's very important for your boss to tell the group about the expectations of his/her boss. Don't rely on your boss to do their job perfectly (more on this later), so try to augment your boss' skills with your own reminders.
  8. Keep an accurate record of what your boss has asked you to do. This is a no brainer. Your boss may forget, but don't you be caught forgetting. Be sure you understand when the task is due, what's expected, etc.
  9. Keep an accurate record of what you've asked of your boss. Equally important as the previous step. Don't let requests drag on. Set your own deadline of when you'd like a response from your boss. On that date, the issue gets promoted from chronic to acute. Example: on Jan 2nd you give your boss your training plan for the year, asking for their approval. By Jan. 16th the lack of response from your boss begins to annoy you - it's become a chronic problem. Yes, it doesn't get any worse each day (you can bear it), but it's still a problem. So you set Feb 1st as the critical date. On that date, treat the lack of a response as acute - it's suddenly a serious problem and talk to your boss. This keeps the problem from festering until May 15th.

Organization and Project Management

Faced with any problem, possible solutions generally boil down to 1) more money; 2) more staff; 3) more time; 4) more space; 5) more technology; or 6) better organization. So a resource strapped lower level manager's best salvation is better organization. Because it's so critical, what can you do to help your boss and the team succeed?

  1. Be clear about the organization structure, goals and your responsibilities. You may have thought of a better way to split up responsibilities, but don't just nod your head in agreement and then keep on doing it the old way. If the organizational structure follows some standard [3], then get to know the standard.
  2. Understand the trade offs and balance among resources. There's never going to be enough staff, time, money, space, technology, etc. for the workload. Understand how your boss has decided to mix and match these resources.
  3. Collaborate with other team members to complete project plans. Here's an example of where the team offloads work from the boss. Don't expect the boss to be equally effective in all phases of a project, all processes, all skills. Consider any project plan to be a framework and fill in the empty areas.
  4. Measure your performance. If there are already metrics in place, use them and study the results. Yes, you can learn from disasters, but you'll need metrics to gradually improve your processes when you've eliminated disasters. If the team doesn't already have metrics, then invent your own and measure yourself. Create a metric, gather and analyze the data and study the results. Once the metric has served its purpose, turn to another area to improve - drop the first metric and start another.
  5. Make sure the team learns from its experiences. After the completion of every project have a debriefing of what went right and what could be improved. This would normally be the responsibility of a manager to set this up, but the team is perfectly capable of doing this on their own.


Unlike school, it's the reputation of the team, not the individual, that counts. The actions you take (or fail to take) reflect on your team and your boss. Their actions (and inactions) reflect on you as well. Along with reputation comes power - what resources (staff, money) are provided to your team.

  1. Hand off work between team members effectively and efficiently. Your shift may be ending or someone else could do the job better. For whatever reason for a hand off, getting the job done is more important than individual egos. Your team's client doesn't care who does it, just that it gets done.
  2. Cross train members of your team. You know all those emails you've received in the past six months that tinker with how the team works, explain how to use certain tools and outline priorities? The person who just joined your team didn't receive them because they weren't here. Make sure they learn about recent team issues and resolutions.
  3. Encourage productive feedback among team members. If you know a better way of doing things then share it with others. If someone else knows a better way, learn it. And don't restrict feedback to criticism. Give out some praise for a job well done. We'd all like the feedback to come from the boss, but by sharing feedback yourselves, you offload some work from your boss.
  4. Be careful your team doesn't turn into a fiefdom.[4] Fiefdoms are teams gone bad - where people on a team "protect" their data, use non standard processes, and discourage interactions with other teams. Fiefdoms lead to turf wars - conflicts over which team has what responsibility. They drain productivity from the company. Classic symptoms of fiefdoms are "providing a feed" to another group (instead of access to live corporate data) and being told "not to talk to someone" outside the team.


Your first level manager has one of the most difficult jobs in the company. They were probably promoted because they excelled at your level, and now they're expected to perform in an area without any training. In addition, they're likely expected to do their old job plus the management responsibilities. To make matters more difficult, they rarely have any real power, but are given a budget, a headcount, and a load of responsibilities. Part of your challenge is to enable your boss to be effective and to use their time efficiently.

  1. Perform all the little administrative tasks required at work. Get your time card in on time, create whatever weekly or monthly reports are required, etc. Anytime you delay these tasks, you drain away time and energy from your boss. You really don't want to do that.
  2. Be aware of what's important for performance review. During the year, your boss will say "... will be considered in performance review." Don't be too surprised if they forget all the things they said over the year, but also don't be surprised if they do remember.
  3. Take responsibility for your own career. Work out your own training plan. Take stock of your accomplishments every two months, so you'll be ready at the end of the year.
  4. If you could benefit from coaching, ask for it. Despite all of the management advice in the press, tasks like coaching are likely to be jettisoned because of time constraints on your boss. With a direct request for coaching on a specific topic, you can get the coaching you need.
  5. Create a one page profile of your boss. A profile is a list of someone's goals, constraints, expectations, preferences, likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. The profile reminds you of how to avoid interrupting your boss and how best to help them to resolve an issue. Look through this article for all mentions of "preference" and that's a good start for a profile. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator[5] (MBTI) may suggest other ways of understanding and helping your boss.


  • If you pay attention to the issues and decisions your boss makes, you may develop management skills and be promoted. Congratulations and condolences!
  • Retain profiles of previous bosses. They will help you to understand what led to their successes and issues.
  • It takes a long time to gradually apply all of these steps.
  • Each boss is different, so start a fresh profile for each one.


  • Keep the one page profile of your boss at home and don't admit it exists.

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Sources and Citations