Hi Captain Awkward,
I’ve been reading for about 8 months, and I really appreciate your excellent, transferable and practical advice. Can you help me use my words at work, please? How do I pin down my elusive boss and talk to her?
Eighteen months ago I got a job in the industry of my dreams, but not in the department I wanted to work in. I put in my time in on Job 1 and after 8 months was moved me to where I wanted to be (sort of). I’ve had some problems adjusting to Job 2, because I’m actually straddling two departments. In Department A, I’m a lowly assistant, and in Department B I have a lot more responsibility – I’m kind of the company specialist in my area and there’s no one else who can do what I can do. So while I’m still very junior I have also done some great work for the company in my specialist area.
There has been tension between my two bosses as I have had to juggle my commitments and sometimes one job suffers at the expense of the other. Despite repeated pleas from me to clarify my job description, reduce my workload, or move me to Department B altogether, very little has been done – except that my work for Department B has sort of gone underground. I’m working my ass off, but to avoid irritating Boss A, Boss B and I sort of pretend I’m not that busy for Department B. So I’m also not getting as much credit for my hard work as I would like (this sort of accrediting/reputation-gaining for successful projects will have a big impact on my future in the industry).
This is all complicated by the fact that I really want to move into Department B, and if that’s not going to be possible at this company then I plan to look for a new job. When I joined the company I made my preference for Department B very clear, but there hasn’t been a job for me yet, although various things have been hinted at while I’ve been here.
Now, Boss B is very busy, and I support her as much as I can by just getting on with things (I am very independent and prefer to work this way most of the time), but the trouble is that I would like to progress in my special area (ha) and I need to sit down and talk strategy with her, as well as regularly discussing all the small things I need her input on. She has weekly catch-up meetings with the other five members of her department, because she is kind of a micro-manager, but she never seems to have time for me.
I have tried to get a meeting with her since 24th March, but without fail they have been cancelled by her (once in May I had to cancel because I was sick, but she could not reschedule). Yesterday she cancelled our catch-up yet again (by just failing to show up, and then when I went and found her, apologising that she was busy). I know she was incredibly busy – we all are – but I need her input in my work, and the whole ‘not showing up’ thing, which she has done five times previously, is getting old. The weird thing is that she is very good at emailing, and in fact sends me several messages a day sometimes, catching up on things, making decisions, etc – but I need face to face time with her, not least because I think we are having some communication problems…
There are no immediately obvious reasons why she doesn’t want time with me in person, so this is really frustrating. Is it possible she thinks I’m just happy beavering away on my own? It has all got really awkward, and also ludicrous, because now we communicate almost exclusively by email! I want to talk to her about some slightly awkward stuff (wanting credit for this great project I set up, wanting a job in her department), but should I just give up and email it all to her? Because she is a lot more senior than me I am trying to steer clear of sounding accusatory or irritated, or demanding her time, so I have tried saying things like, ‘It would be really great if we could catch up; there are a few things I really need to talk to you about,’ but she says ‘I am too busy, I can’t – just email me.’ How do I get her to sit down with me?!
Thanks so much,
Desperately Seeking My Superior
Thanks for your kind words and loyal readership! Eight months is about how long I’ve been writing this.
It’s possible that your boss knows what you want to talk about and doesn’t have a good answer for you, so she’s avoiding the topic for now. Or, since she’s saying “email me,” maybe she means that you should just email her because she prefers to process things in writing. You’re doing the right thing by a) being awesome at your work b) mollifying Boss A and c) wanting to keep any kind of accusatory tone out of your communications with Boss B, but there are a few more practical things you can do for your career both at this company and in general.
First, document what you’re doing. This is a step I recommend especially in difficult boss/employee relationships, but it’s never the wrong move and can help a lot even when the relationship is good. What I mean by document is this:
Early Monday morning, send a message to each boss.
“Hello Boss, hope you had a good weekend. Here are my tasks and priorities for this week (list them). Any special instructions/anything else I should work on?”
If there is anything you should know, you’ve now made it very easy for your boss to let you know.
Now you can do this next part on Friday as a status update or include it in your next week’s Monday morning email, but at the end of every week (or the beginning of the following week) you also want to send a status report on all the stuff you said you’d do.
- Project A – Completed
- Project B – sent to X department for review, should hear back by (date).
- Project C – I need x and y piece of information from you before it can go out.
- Project D – I will have it on your desk by day’s end Monday.
Etc. Then do what you did last week and send a brief list of your priorities for the week.
Keep these short and sweet – it’s not your LiveJournal or your plea for recognition for all the great stuff you’re doing – you want this in easy-to-process Boss Language. Bullet points are good. Clearly indicating what needs input from your boss is good. The goal is not to tell the story of how great you are, it’s to make it really easy for your bosses to manage you without having to think about it too much. To be honest, they might not even read these except to look for the places where they need to respond, so keep it well under 500 words.
The part where they tell the story of how great you are is their secret purpose. Because after you’ve done this for a little while, you’ll have data for:
- A map of how you actually use your time.
- Comparing to your old job description and writing a new one.
- Making a case for your awesomeness at your annual review.
- A track record of being awesome and proactive at communication.
- Rewriting your resume and cover letter to apply for new jobs.
Now, it’s pretty clear to me that your heart and your career path lie in Department B (or in the equivalent at a different company), but there are a few outside factors that might stand in your way in the short term:
- Department B doesn’t have budget to create a position for you right now. When does your company’s budgeting process take place? Boss B may desperately want to keep you on, but has to do it as part of Department A’s budget for right now. Her hands may be tied as far as making a commitment to you.
- You’ve only been there 18 months. They hired you for the more administrative position and may be looking at the work you do for Department B as a growth opportunity for you but haven’t made a decision yet about whether to grow you into that work full time. Have you had an annual performance review? Is that coming up soon? Because that’s the perfect time to raise these issues. More on preparing for performance reviews here.
I suggest making your transition to Department B (or a similar role at a different company) your 3-6 month plan.
Step 1: Start sending the weekly emails, if you haven’t already. Drop the request for a meeting with Boss B for now. She’s told you that’s not happening.
Step 2: Pull out your old job description. Rewrite it as the job you are actually doing and want to be doing.
Step 3: Update your cover letter and resume. Search for postings for a (whatever you do) specialist – are there other jobs you could apply for and get? What is the job market like in your industry? Research similar companies, their pay and benefits. Update your LinkedIn profile. Try to meet people at those companies. Are there some prominent people in your field who do what you want to be doing 10 years from now? Can you meet them? Go to any networking events in your industry. If there are openings, send some resumes out and see what happens. Read blogs and trade publications so you’re up on the latest stuff. Also network inside your company – go to brown bag lunches, picnics, happy hour – show your face and fly your flag.
Step 4: Appearances count. As part of this campaign, make sure you’re running a tight ship. By this, I mean:
- Be 10 minutes early every day, having eaten breakfast and already caffeinated yourself, ready to go.
- If your desk is covered in piles, sort those piles into folders, label them, and put them in something like this. Take 10 minutes at the end of every day to organize your desk space. (It shouldn’t matter, but it DOES matter to bosses).
- Be a complaint-free zone. No bitching about your workload, your personal life, or your department dilemma to your coworkers or bosses. Is it hard working for two departments and having your attention so divided? “Sure, it can be stressful sometimes, but I’m so grateful for the additional experience I’m gaining, and I know we’ll work it out.”
- Don’t neglect your relationship with Boss A while you romance Boss B. You know who Boss A is? She’s your biggest supporter because she’s created this opportunity for you to do work at a higher level. When and if you do get the new position, send her flowers and a sincere thank-you note.
- Pay attention to dress and grooming. Make sure you are neat, crisp, and professional. Get a great haircut (and maintain it). The lint brush and the toothbrush are your friends.
Key words: Bright, focused, positive, polished, mature, reliable, team-player.
Step 5: A month or three from now, when you feel like your ducks are in a row, ask Boss B for a brief meeting. If she says “email me,” do it. Here’s a possible email script.
Dear Boss B:
I’m sure you know that I’ve been extremely happy to work with your department on projects like X and Y. I want to discuss the possibility of transferring to your department full-time as a (___) specialist and see if we can develop a plan and a timeline for a transition. I know your schedule is packed, so understand if you can’t sit down right now, but I’d appreciate any thoughts you can share with me.
Then see what she says. If she says no, that work you’ve been doing networking in the industry and maintaining ties with Boss A will become very valuable. If she says “not yet” see if you can finagle some professional training/higher ed out of her in the meantime – treat it like a negotiation and see what you can get.
Go knock ’em dead.