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Keeping three bosses happy takes a good juggler

Coach's Corner--June 29, 2009

The Client
Name: Jerry
Age: 49
Title: Finance manager
Industry: Global manufacturing firm
Issue: Managing multiple bosses

Q. I have three bosses. I report to one directly and two are "dotted-line" bosses who give me work direction in my role of supporting their business units. It's really hard to keep my priorities clear with so many folks in charge, and it's really starting to get to me. Your advice?

A. Being effective in a matrixed environment calls for planning, finesse and lots of communication.

The inner game
Take a deep breath! Life in organizations comes with competing agendas and multiple priorities, but they can be sorted out. Don't panic, and don't lose your cool. You can only do one thing at a time anyway, so practice staying focused. Spend some time considering the benefits of your job, too, such as the variety it brings and the broad exposure in your company.

Assess how clear you are about your bosses' expectations. Notice which are spelled out, and which have taken you by surprise. Consider how they may be seeing the situation, as well. Your goal is to meet all of their needs, so gaining perspective on their positions will be time well spent. 

As the person at the center of this situation, you likely have some ideas on how to keep things manageable. Focus on gaining even more clarity about how you think this could work out. Create your ideal vision for how priorities should be set, how decisions would be made if some work scope had to get cut back, the frequency and level of status reports and other day-to-day interactions.

The outer game
Focus on communicating with your bosses, meeting with them to build consensus on how you should manage your time.

Before meeting, make a plan, organizing your thoughts about the current situation, the impact it has and your recommendations for improvement. While they may care about the effect the stressful situation has on you, they will definitely be interested in how a different approach can benefit them. Focus on the latter as much as you can, especially if you'll be asking them to make some changes.

Meet with each separately first to get their feedback on what's working and what could be improved. Run your ideas by them to get buy-in and hear their critiques, which you can then incorporate into your suggested approach. Then bring them together as a group (in person or by phone) to help resolve any remaining points of difference, especially if they affect how you deal with competing time demands. Also consider setting an expectation with them for periodic check-ins.

The important thing is to manage your tone. If you sound like you're whining, pushing back on the work or blaming them, you won't be heard. Worst case, you could jeopardize your job security. Be positive and bring concrete solutions for them. The situation may improve, but be ready to have change be gradual -- don't expect a dramatic shift overnight.

The last word
Managing multiple agendas can be tough, but building more visibility about what you're doing with all concerned will help you stay on track.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted June 28, 2009
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