Marshall’s Mandates: Working With Your Boss

Posted: Apr 22  |  By: John L. Marshall III

Rules to follow from our former President, John L. Marshall III

I want to share with you a number of “Leadership Rules” that I have used for many years. If I were you, I would be asking myself, why “rules” of leadership? First, I am a recovering lawyer. All lawyers are rules-based. That is how we learned to think like a legal professional! Are there any “bright-line” tests that should be applied to this set of facts? Is there a regulation or law directly on point? Secondly, I am a firm believer that effective leadership happens when the staff you are responsible for supporting is be able to make decisions on their own that would closely mirror the decisions you would make in the same circumstances, using rules that you have supplied. In other words, management happens when you are in the room, leadership happens when you aren’t.

So where did these “Rules” come from? I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for and be mentored not only by persons whom I know to be excellent leaders themselves, but to have been exposed to excellent classroom-style management training during my tenure at AT&T Corp. My learning how to be a manager and leader has certainly not stopped. In fact, I find that even after quite a few years as a business unit leader responsible for the business operations of nearly 90 branches throughout the United States and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, I am still learning how to be a better manager and leader. For example, I think the area that continues to offer the most opportunity for development for me personally is in providing consistent criticism. The praise part of communication comes easier. But more on that in a later blog post…

Raymond’s Rules

In this blog series, I want to share with you 20 rules that I’ve learned in my many years as a business leader. The first ten come almost whole-cloth from my former mentor and boss – Raymond Brenner. My experience with Raymond lasted from 1993 until 1998 while he was the Vice President for legal matters involving two of AT&T’s Business Units, namely AT&T Solutions and AT&T American Transtech. Over the course of quite a few Friday morning meetings, I was the beneficiary of Raymond’s musings on business in general, AT&T business in particular, and, best of all, how he liked to manage. Here are just a few of the amazing lessons Raymond taught me.

Working with Your Boss

Rule #1: Your boss expects to be surprised – but only by you.

Raymond believes that Rule #1 was among the most important things about working with your boss that you can learn as a manager. Rule #1 illuminates many of the other Rules to follow.

You would think that this Rule is self-explanatory. However, putting this into practice is not as easy as you might think. What will constitute a “surprise?” How should the “heads up” be delivered? Do you simply describe the issue or also what you are planning to do about it? Should you have an alternate plan? I encourage you to think about the answer to those questions from the perspective of your boss.

From a practical application perspective, this Rule requires that you be the bearer of bad news. It also allows you to be the bearer of good news. An occurrence that would be a surprise to your boss that involves you, your work or your area of responsibility needs to be presented by you, not by anyone else. Your boss, if she is a good one, will want to naturally shield you from unnecessary criticisms or complaints. Give her the opportunity to protect you by giving her the information about a potentially unpleasant situation ahead of time.

Rule #2: You can talk with your boss about your problems all you wish, but they will still be your problems.

I discuss problems with my managers all the time. We discuss alternatives and approaches. I think it means we do a better job. However, I think some of my managers believe that because we discussed the problem and agreed upon a situation that failure is OUR failure, not THEIR failure. They are the manager. I am helping as best I can. In the end, however, it is still their problem and they are responsible for the resolution.

More often than not, problems tend to involve people. People doing their job or not; people interacting with others appropriately or not. When I am discussing problems of personal performance or other individual issues, most – if not all – of the facts concerning the situation are known directly by the first or second line manager, and not by me. This means that the people who turn to me to help them resolve problems are in a position to significantly influence the resolution we reach based on their presentation of facts and opinion.

Rule #3: If your boss solves all of your problems, how will they know what you can do?

This is a very difficult rule to apply when it appears that your career will be in jeopardy if a colleague or subordinate is allowed to fail. In today’s high-stakes business environment, how do you allow someone to fail and learn from their mistakes? I would recommend that you make a reasoned decision about the actual ramifications as opposed to the worst case ramifications and go from there. Discuss the situation with a trusted mentor or a senior manager. I think it is a mistake to simply take over work or transfer the assignment to someone else under every circumstance. If you honestly believe that your staff member will learn more from the mistake than from your moving the work to someone else, I encourage you to let your staff member fail and learn from the experience.

Rule #4: Your boss is judged on whether you know what you are doing.

I can tell you right now that I am pretty darned sure that my current boss thinks that I know what I am doing. In fact, I’m judged much more on whether the people I support know what they’re doing. When you know that your boss is sure that you know what you are doing, it frees you to allow your people to show that they know what they are doing. Do not take credit for your staff’s work. Your boss knows that you know how to do your staff’s job. Let him see that your people know how to do their job.

Rule #5: After three times, it isn’t a suggestion.

Bosses tend to fall into either of two camps – the suggesters and the commanders. Whatever camp they fall into, bosses want to get their way. They just go about it differently.

Most of the time, Raymond was a suggester. If I asked him for a suggestion or sought his advice, that is what he gave me. Raymond had a great memory. He would almost always eventually get around to asking me how things worked out in respect of the matter on which he gave the original suggestion. If I had not initiated or completed his suggestions, he would either wish me luck or make his original suggestion again. At that point, I had just one “suggestion” to go before I had to consider his suggestion a command. Why did I do this? Raymond was my boss for a reason. I respected his opinion and remember, I went to him for advice. If his suggestion was really a command (and after three times it was) and I didn’t do what he suggested, then if things worked out I got lucky. If they did not work out, I was foolish and needed his advice.

Remember Rule #2? I was in complete control of the version of the facts and circumstances I offered to Raymond as part of asking for his advice. If things turned out to be different than I described, then I was obliged to update him. This allowed me to get better advice and also offered a way to exercise a little “boss management” and get him to rethink advice that appeared to be unworkable under the revised circumstances.

In my next blog post, I will be addressing more rules that I learned from Raymond regarding working with your staff.

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