Thursday, February 26, 2009

Getting the Attention of the Five-Minute Boss

While many people think that never seeing the boss might be a good thing, those who have a manager that rivals the Stealth Bomber know differently.

Those who don't get regular face time with the boss are often the most vulnerable, especially in these tough times. The last thing you want to happen is for you -- and your past accomplishments and daily contributions -- to be forgotten by your boss. If you're not on a manager's radar screen, you risk being closed out of top projects, being passed over for promotions or great opportunities -- or even being laid off.

But how to get the attention of managers who may have the attention span of a 5-year-old as they race off to another meeting or seem like a phone is permanently attached to their ear?

The key is you've got to be aware of what your boss wants -- and when and how she wants it.

I once had a boss tell me that it drove her crazy when employees felt like they had to constantly update her on every development, and keep her apprised of details about an upcoming wedding, baby shower, 5K training effort, etc. She was frustrated she was interrupted so many times during her day, so had become one of those Stealth managers I mentioned -- she went out of her way to try and avoid some workers, because she knew any encounter would often be lengthy and delay her from more critical tasks.

So, how to make sure you get face time with a busy and stressed boss? There are some key things to consider:

1. Busiest times. Most people are swamped on Monday mornings, and are trying to clear their desks Friday afternoons. If you know that your boss always has a report to his boss due on Wednesday morning, then avoid the time right before that. Ask for a specific time: "I need 20 minutes of your time to update you on the XYZ project. We've had some promising developments and I want to also give you the timeline for the coming weeks." This tells the boss that you've got a specific agenda, and won't be rambling about your son's soccer game and bitching about a co-worker. Once you get to meet with the boss, stick with the time allotted. If the meeting starts to run long, say something like: "I see we've gone over the time. Would you like to schedule another meeting, or have me put the rest in an e-mail?" If you go over the determined time, you're going to be held responsible, even if the boss starts gabbing about his new golf club. Try to keep him on the subject so that you make the most of your time and he sees any interaction with you as positive and focused.

2. Learn to use a stopwatch. You'd be surprised how long it takes to just give the background on a subject. Rehearse your presentation to the boss ahead of time, and learn to whittle down your subject to talking points. You want to make sure you're not wasting time on unimportant stuff -- make the most use of the boss's time. The last thing you want to do is just begin reaching the critical points and the boss says, "Sorry. I can't give you any more time."

3. Envision the burning house. I use this example a lot, but it always works. When you see a burning house, you don't call the fire department and start talking about how beautiful the neighborhood is, what you're wearing and what you're having for lunch. You immediately tell them the location of the fire. Same thing when you're talking to the boss: Get to the most important details first. It helps if you can send her an agenda before your meeting so she has time to look it over, but if not, start your session with: "I've got five issues I need to talk to you about, but I'd like to start with two that I believe to be the most important."

4. Make the meeting interactive. Most bosses have a million and one things on their minds, so it's always a good idea to make sure you've got their full attention. One way you can do this is through questions: "What is your biggest concern?" "Can you think of anything I've left out?" "Is there anyone else you feel I should speak with about this project?" This helps the boss feel informed, and a part of the process, without making you seem like a pest.

What are some other ways to make the most use of the limited time with a boss?

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Anonymous said...

Anita: Excellent advice. I'd add a prior recommendation. In conversations with your boss, tell her directly that you'd like ten or fifteen minutes of face time regularly--and so you'd like to know what are typically the best times to schedule an appointment. At the same time, indicate that this allotment of time will save them both the need for updating, problem solving, etc.

Approach it not from the position of asking permission--but simply assume that your boss will accede and support you in a request involving mutual objectives.

And make certain that time granted is mutually valuable.

Anita said...

Thanks for those suggestions -- I especially like the point of approaching it from the standpoint of solving mutual objectives.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Anita,

Boy...don't I need this reminder, I roughly see my boss once a month & we are in the same large project.

Last time this has happened, I became the most dispensable, due to misunderstanding of expectations & results.

So it might be the time to book a one-on-one meeting.
Do you have any suggestion on how plan such conversations, so that it won't feel like time is wasted on either side?

Anita said...

If your time is limited, I'd say you need to make sure that face-to-face is aimed at either updating your boss on how what you're doing is meeting a vital need or how you're helping him to meet one of his goals (which would probably be making money for the company.) Or, you could tell him about a new process or idea you're developing, always keeping the focus on the fact that you're aligning what you do with making the company successful.
If you've had problems in the past with not communicating clearly about specific expectations and results, this might be a good time to make sure you're on the same page as the boss and briefly outline how you're meeting those goals and expectations and ask him if he has any changes or suggestions to make. You could also do this with an e-mail, and just go over the most critical points during your personal meeting. The more prepared you are to make the meeting efficient and purpose-focused, the better chance you have of gaining more of his time in the future.
Good luck.

Ask a Manager said...

Great, great advice. When I have employees who routinely waste my time by bringing me things I really don't need to be involved in or by taking forever to get to the point, I do indeed start getting more skeptical of their requests for meeting time. These are great tips on how to avoid that!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Anita - I've found #2 particularly important. The CEO I last worked for really valued direct reports who were succinct, yet highly informative. You're right - C-suite folks want facts and meaning.

Anita said...

Ask a Manager and Marsha,
Thank you so much for adding your "in the trenches" thoughts. They add a lot of value to this conversation!

Anonymous said...

These are definitely good pieces of advice. I personally agree that our bosses' times are limited and we have to make the most with the time we have to report or present something.It also helps to think how would we feel if we are the boss being bugged.

Anita said...

Putting yourself in the boss's shoes is a great suggestion. If you just think about the co-worker who rambles on, bugs you with trivial stuff when you're trying to meet a deadline -- then you can understand how the boss may feel when you do the same to her.

Anonymous said...

Anita, Thanks for the additional advice.