I once worked on a team that helped produce a nightly television news show. The format didn't vary much, the deadlines were the same every night and my colleagues and I were experienced pros. But our senior producer had a tough time letting us just do our thing. Even though we sat in offices mere feet from the boss, she wanted us to send frequent e-mail updates on our progress. We could've been the most crackerjack TV producers. If we didn't keep the boss in the loop, she thought we were falling down on the job.
That's because this boss had what management professor Joe Magee calls a strong sense of ownership over the work her staff performed. An authority on power and politics within organizations, Magee teaches at New York University's Stern School of Business. In order to be successful at work, Magee recommends employees get curious about their bosses' backgrounds, their goals, their values and their day-to-day management styles. To that end, he's come up with 10 questions he recommends all workers ask their bosses.
Of course in these days of Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, some of this info can be gleaned quietly and quickly online. Magee also recommends the proverbial water cooler as a productive place to gather gossip and scuttlebutt.
First off and most basic: What did your boss do before she was your boss? What was her previous position? That information will help you suss out how capable she is of handling all the responsibilities on her plate. "How dependent is she going to be on you to get the job done?" asks Magee. "We think of the boss as all-knowing, but we've all had bosses who didn't know what they were doing." "Help them shine and you will look good in the process," Magee suggests.
Following on that question, how did your boss come to her current job? Did someone get fired, and she stepped into the breach? Did she get promoted by default, simply because she was next in line? "That information can tell you what other people think about your boss," points out Magee.
What are your boss' career aspirations? What does she see as her next step? "Is this someone who values power and status?" asks Magee. "If so, you'd better help that person climb the corporate ladder." Or it could be that your boss has hit a plateau and doesn't see much more growth in her future.
What does your boss value in the job? Is she intellectually stimulated by the work? Is she just collecting a paycheck? Does she care more about internal politics or external exposure?
How does your boss fit within the larger power structure at work? Is her political capital on the rise or on the wane? Magee suggests diplomatically asking your boss this question while gathering string from colleagues.
What kind of a relationship does your boss have with her supervisor? This is also a question that requires extra research.
Does your boss advocate for her team? Does she push to get her people promoted? Will she stick her neck out for you if someone gives you a hard time?
What kind of management style works for your boss? What sort of ownership does she feel over the work her team performs? Does she want to make sure you're on track with frequent check-ins (like my boss at the TV news show)? Or, conversely, does she give you so much rope that you can easily hang yourself? "This is one of the big things people struggle with at work," notes Magee. "There is such individual variation." If you work for a micro manager and suddenly get assigned to a supervisor with a hands-off style, that can require a huge shift.
What does your boss value most in the people who report to her? Face time? Creativity? Or does she care more about autonomy, expediency or attention to detail?
Finally, get to know something about your boss' life outside work. Does she care passionately about kickboxing or her collection of vintage humidors? Is she obsessed with her new Shar-Pei puppy? Does her religious or political affiliation affect her schedule, and thus yours? Where did she go to college?
The more you know about your boss' values, management style, background and interests, the greater chance you'll find success at work.