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Managing the relationship with an out-of-town boss

Coach's Corner--April 27, 2009

The Client
Name: Aaron
Age: 48
Title: Finance manager
Industry: Retail
Issue: Working with a long-distance boss
Q. My boss is located in another part of the country. I’m comfortable working independently, except that when she does get engaged, she makes a lot of disruptive changes in my team’s work direction. How can I keep us on the same page?

A. Have a good process and communicate clearly to keep on track with your boss.

The inner game
Assess your process. How do you check in about projects and priorities? If this hasn’t been specifically thought out, just defining a process may resolve the situation.

Consider your behavior. Working independently may come naturally; however, be sure you’re not being a cowboy. Even though she isn’t nearby, she’s part of the team, and it’s important to keep her in the loop. Has she ever signaled that she wants more engagement? If so, how have you responded?

Evaluate her suggestions. Are the changes she suggests disruptive because of timing? Even improvements can be challenging if they cause re-work. They may be a different way (her way) of doing something, but one that you can support. Or they may be a less effective way to proceed, which is another problem entirely. Look for patterns in her feedback. For example, if they all pertain to reporting, prepare to learn more about her expectations in that area.

Know what you’d like. Within the limits of your long-distance working relationship, what would work best for you? Consider how to open the discussion about how to work together. You may want to prepare some thoughts in advance or you may prefer a more spontaneous approach. Also, think through your ideal method and frequency of communication. The clearer you are, the more likely you’ll be to reach a successful agreement.

The outer game
Check with your team. They’ll have perspectives that may help you see things more clearly; they also have a stake in how you handle it. Find out about their concerns, if any, and ask for ideas for improvement — including ways you could improve. One hint: Use their feedback in a confidential way as you bring your thoughts forward to your boss.

Get your boss’ perspective. Check in with her on her satisfaction with project communication. This may feel like a risky conversation, because she may bring up areas where she’d like some changes. Manage any defensiveness you might feel and stay focused on your hopes for an even more successful working relationship.

Ask for what you need. Use your insights about your preferred communication pattern and your knowledge of her style to suggest an approach that would work better for you. Focus on the impact that improvement would have on your team’s productivity and negotiate a new approach. Avoid a confrontational tone. If she’s satisfied or is resistant to changing the current process, get her buy-in to discuss your thoughts later. Then, mention it the next time she pulls the rug out from under you. Besides, just identifying the issue to her may cause a change for the better.

The last word
Working with your boss and your team, set the stage for timely and effective communication.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted April 27, 2009
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