with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode we talk about the concept of managing your boss, specifically:

  • Why your boss is your #1 customer
  • What happens when they’re not
  • How to make them your biggest ambassador.

But first…

This starts with a simple question:

Who is your customer?

When I asked one of my clients this question, he said, “My team. My job is to make their jobs as easy as possible.”

“Do they approve your salary and bonuses?” I asked.
“Well, no”, he said, hesitating. “My boss approves that.”
“Who is your true customer then?”

The revelation stopped him in his tracks because it runs counter to contemporary management fads to think of your boss as your true customer. We’ve been taught that we should think of our team members as our customers, but this is looking at it the wrong way around. Your team is the vendor. Your boss is your customer.

Turning your thinking around like this will help you see who you need to serve better (i.e. your boss) and who you can expect more from (i.e. your vendors). When we look at our team as though they are our customers (rather than service providers to both you and the company), we more readily accept poor performance. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should stop developing them and providing them with a high-performance work environment, but by serving them instead of your boss as your customers, you are potentially doing yourself (and your career) a disservice.

Start viewing your boss as your customer and you’ll do everything you can to make sure they are a raving fan. This is what will move you to the top of the list when you are being considered for promotion.

Why managing your boss as a customer works

In a career sense, it pays to start approaching your boss as though they were your customer for three main reasons:

  1. You’ll grow with them. In other words, if they’re successful in their role and future roles, not only are they going to demand more of you, but when they get a promotion they’re going to lift you up the corporate ladder with them.
  2. The better you make your boss look, the more likely it is that those in the position to promote you will want to see you in positions that can also make them look good.
  3. A happy boss can turn the daily grind into a wonderful career.
  4. If you’re effectively serving your boss, you should, in turn, be effectively serving the company in perfect alignment.
  5. You really do start to operate at a higher level in the organisation and start solving some of its bigger problems.

Let’s be honest, if your customer isn’t happy, how much of an impact are you going to have? If your customer isn’t happy, how happy can you possibly be?

Knowing your customer

One of my clients, Rob, was having credibility issues with his boss, the COO. “She is difficult to connect with”, he told me one day. “I never know where I stand. I just don’t think she sees the value in me.”

The deeper truth that Rob was missing was that he was solving the wrong problems. He was focused on his problems, which he thought the COO should be focusing on, rather than listening and gaining a deeper understanding of what the COO felt the biggest problems in the business were.

The moment he started to look at the COO as though she were his customer, his whole approach to messaging changed. He wrote a detailed profile on the COO:

  • What were her real problems?
  • What was keeping her up at night?
  • What were the CEO, shareholders and the market demanding of her?

But every plan needs action…

Rob worked out that the three biggest pain points for the COO were safety, unstable operations, and difficulty in keeping other team members on track. The last of these was a major issue. Team members were constantly drifting off into non-mission critical activities and not working together.

Rob immediately started framing his messages around solving these problems.

Whereas before he would say:
“We’re implementing a new governance system for our projects to ensure they are kept to scope, time and budget and our new operational standards are being rolled out.”

Now he would say:
“Our new operational standards are being implemented with a focus on their relationship to safety and stabilising production. We have initiated a fortnightly managers' meeting to keep everyone focused on the most valuable work. We have also announced that we are pausing or cancelling several non-critical projects.”

Rob’s work focus changed only marginally, but by turning his messaging on its head, he was demonstrating to his customer (ie. his boss!) that he understood her problems.

At an executive team meeting less than three weeks later, the COO told Rob (and everybody else in the room) that he was doing a brilliant job and that there were other opportunities they were going to send his way. This was a big change for Rob. He was definitely not being positioned like this previously.

Best of all, by solving his boss’s problems, Rob solved the company’s problems at an even higher level. The COO and the executive team had their own set of daily challenges, and by addressing one of them, Rob’s changes had a company-wide impact.

By thinking about the role above his, Rob was able to connect with his boss and solve her problems, and as these positive effects rippled outward, word quickly spread among the executive team. Rob had developed a reputation as a leader worth considering for promotion.

Getting inside your manager's head

The most effective way to do this is to develop an in-depth understanding of the problems that your boss faces daily.

  • What are their biggest day-to-day issues at work and home?
  • What are their biggest fears and dreams about their work and career?
  • What are the consequences if they don't get the results they're after?
  • What do you need to change to really get on track in serving them?

The more clarity you have in terms of your customers’ wants, needs, fears and dreams the better you will be able to serve them.

You don’t need to be a psychic to get accurate answers to these questions. You just need to talk to your customer. Buy them lunch, take them for a drink after work, or take them for a coffee early in the day. The more you know about them, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to get inside their head (and this is where you have to be if you are going to make the most of this exercise). Ask them about their work, and listen carefully to their answers. What is the subtext of what they’re saying? Pay particularly close attention to complaints or other signs of frustration.

If your first profile doesn’t work, you might have missed a core customer problem, or you might not be making it obvious to them that you are solving or have solved their problem. Like we learned from Rob, a change in messaging can have powerful knock-on effects.

The final step here is that once you know what your boss’ biggest challenges are, you now go the extra mile and exceed their expectations. I mean make them your biggest ambassador. This doesn’t mean being a suck-up. No one likes that. It is easy to see. Just do such an incredibly good job that they can’t help but be impressed by you.

One more case study

Recently, I helped two leaders land their first ever executive team roles. They both came to me with similar problems…they weren't in the hunt for the role. But we turned the tide around by immediately identifying the key members of the interview panel and then getting inside their heads. We did a detailed profile on the CEO and looked at the way they could pitch for the role. And now they are both in the C-Suite. Huge moves. Talk about fist-pumping moments for them.

The most beautiful thing I’ve found about this process is that it shifts your whole emotional experience from back foot to front foot. It goes from negative to positive. Now you’re focused on delivering, being great and you get your head in the game. That’ll flow with a better vitality and energy in your work.

I know that this shift has been a huge game-changer for people I’ve coached.

That sums it up, Chief.

Stay epic,