When I turned 39, I was hired to lead the comms function for a big financial services company, reporting directly to its founder and CEO. My new boss was a self-made billionaire and widely known for being demanding and hard to please. I was warned about the difficulty of the role.
"That guy chews up his PR people," said one close friend. "I would not want to work for him."
I found this advice frightening but not particularly helpful. I was hoping to gain some insight that might increase my chances for success. Ultimately, the best tip came from a relative, my brother-in-law, who had never worked in the communications profession.
"Your job," he told me, "is to not get on your boss’ nerves."
My brother-in-law’s guidance proved to be profoundly accurate, not just for that job but also for almost every professional role I’ve had.
In its list of critical competencies for success, Korn Ferry identifies "boss relationships" as a pivotal skill needed to get promoted from manager to executive.
Gaining proficiency in this competency means you’ve got to figure out how to manage your boss, no matter how difficult he or she might be. This came to mind recently while talking with a colleague who was dreading an upcoming meeting with one of her subordinates. The subordinate had been underperforming and was unhappy at the company. "He wants to discuss his job description," my colleague told me.
The minute I heard that phrase, I knew the situation was not going to end well. Whenever the dreaded "job description" gets raised as a discussion point, it’s a sign the boss and employee are at odds. A job description is a helpful tool for defining and describing a role, but in the end, it is simply a piece of paper that represents a best-guess at what a job might look like. It is next to impossible to capture on paper the nuance, complexity, and ambiguous nature of any management role, particularly in today’s volatile business environment.
My own view is that the first line of every job description should read something like: "Exceed your boss’ expectations no matter how irrational, capricious, insecure, or illogical he or she might be." The Korn Ferry research is spot on: The boss is the main portal to advancement in almost every organization. And if you can’t figure out how to manage your boss, your options start to narrow.
The sad truth is you are often stuck with the boss you’re given, and the best pathway out is through winning him or her over. If you wait for the company to step in and save you from a bad leader, you will be waiting a long time.
Of course, if your boss is truly unbearable, then you should start activating your network and come up with a plan B.
But in the meantime, try not to get into a debate about your job description. The key to getting promoted is to perform well and tackle what’s in front of you, even if it’s not in the job description. The people I’ve promoted over the years were innovative, transparent, intellectually curious, and, equally important, they consistently removed stress from my plate.
And the few times I had a subordinate who wanted to discuss their job description, it usually ended with them leaving the company. Sometimes on their own accord, and sometimes not. The ones who thrived understood the advice my brother-in-law offered: that a big part of their job was to figure out how to not get on my nerves.
Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.