Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Successful executives and leaders obviously know how to manage others. But managing one’s boss, superior executives, board members or investors is another matter entirely. Unfortunately, this component of your executive career is just as important — if not more so — than being able to manage employees. Take, for example, the story of Frank:

Frank was a successful SVP of Marketing for a fast-growing, $300 million a year tech company. His CEO recently hired a COO to streamline and optimize the operations side of the business while freeing up the CEO’s time to focus on some potential acquisitions. Lisa, the CEO, was an idea person who processed information best through conversation and presentations. Frank was a master at both. However, Tom, the new COO learned through reading and digesting data. Frank hated writing reports and prepared very brief high-level summaries with the idea that he would get a chance to elaborate one-on-one or in a more detailed presentation with the COO. The COO read Frank’s reports and concluded, inaccurately, that Frank had no real substance. Frank never got a real chance to overcome Tom’s inaccurate conclusion because Tom didn’t alter how he processed information to accommodate Frank’s communication style. Frank kept waiting for Tom to think and act like Lisa. As a result, he became more and more marginalized and ineffective.

Like it or not, if you don’t know what makes your boss tick, and if you don’t figure out how to work with them, you’re less likely to be successful — no matter how exceptional your track record. The first step to preventing Frank’s scenario is to study your boss, whether new or established, just like you would a potential client or sales prospect.

Learning What Makes Your Boss Tick

A recent sales and marketing executive coaching client of mine was having difficulty communicating effectively with his CEO. He had been lulled by his CEO’s casual interpersonal style; conversations with the CEO felt like a fun tennis match — hitting volleys back and forth with occasional lobs and hard groundstrokes. Because the conversation flowed easily, my client assumed that they were communicating well. However, the CEO didn’t feel that my client was giving him an efficient report on the organization.

To address this communication error, I told my client that, if he wanted to more effectively influence his boss, he needed to apply the same level of forethought and preparation for his discussions with his CEO as he did when he met a sales prospect.

With a new mindset, my client was able to easily make the necessary adjustments to his interactions with his boss. Soon, he realized that, while his CEO was chatty, he also appreciated to-the-point discussions and proof that the organization was well-run. My client came better prepared for every meeting with his boss and dialed back his casual communication. He made his boss his client.

As Marshall Goldsmith, the author of the best-selling What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, recently said in a telephone conversation I had with him, “Executives are always on stage. They have to approach any interaction with others with the attitude, ‘It’s showtime.’” You are on stage and you need to be thinking about your audience and how they perceive you.

Establishing an Effective Relationship With Your Boss

If you want to be effective in interacting with your boss, you have to be proactive. You need to step outside yourself and ask, “What drives my boss? How does she think? What is her style of processing information?” Then, adapt your style to fit your audience. Remember: the effectiveness of any communication is not measured by how clear or effective you think you were, but in how well the other person understood you and, more importantly, how they changed their behavior as a result.

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