As you likely already know, the key to your success in most nonprofit positions is making sure that your supervisor is successful. It pays to make your boss look good – literally! And the best way to ensure your supervisor’s success is to lighten their load. This means going above and beyond your job description by assisting your boss with their core tasks. Here are some ways to do that:
1. Know your boss’s headaches
If you understand the pressure and constraints that your boss faces, you are less likely to add pressure in those areas. You will also develop a more empathetic perspective of the pressures of leadership.
2. Take something off their plate
A good habit is to consistently ask your supervisor, “Is there something that I can help you with?” Also, listen to how your supervisor describes current projects. You’ll hear which ones are extra stressful and which ones are critical for the organization’s success. Remember that the first way you can take something off their plate is to do a good job with your current responsibilities.
3. Bring solutions, not problems
Mary Lee Hoffman, the former CEO of a Minnesota Girl Scout council, used to say, “I am always available to talk with you about an organizational issue. I’ll even take you to lunch when we talk about it, but you have to have 2-3 solutions to the problem already thought out before you set the appointment.” This culture of focusing on solutions encouraged staff members to act as problem solvers, not just complainers. Develop this practice when you interact with your boss.
4. Use their time wisely
Don’t come to your boss with every little problem. Keep a running list of topics that you need to talk about with your supervisor and hold it until your next meeting. Also spend some time preparing for those meetings so you both get the most out of that time together.
5. Be a truth teller
It sometimes feels like it’s only the “yes men” who get ahead. But the truth is that these people can really only get so far because when you are surrounded by people that are only telling you what they think you want to hear, you don’t ever hear what you need to hear. Be known as someone who can be depended on for the truth about a situation. Truthfulness and diplomacy about how you deliver that truth will turn you into a trusted advisor and will serve your organization well.
6. Have their back
When you represent your supervisor well and keep their and the organization’s best interests front and center, they are more likely to let you represent them internally and externally. It’s also important that you and your supervisor stay on the same team, even when you disagree. Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and nonprofit board member extraordinaire, said “When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this stage, stimulates me. But once a decision has been made, the debate ends. From that point on loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own.”
7. Don’t sweat the credit
Sometimes the problem isn’t that you aren’t lightening your manager’s load; it’s that you are handling many of your supervisor’s responsibilities and not getting any credit for doing so, or maybe it’s that you came up with a wonderful idea for your organization and it was passed off as someone else’s idea. This is very touchy territory. Sometime you have to be OK with letting go of some credit. It would be great if your boss always told people about the contribution you made to a specific project. That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it’s as simple as someone forgetting to properly thank you. Sometimes they have forgotten the work that you did early in a project if they then took over a project and ran with it. Or sometimes it’s because they are an evil jerk/genius that is trying to take all of the credit and leave you in the dust. Regardless of the reason, this is really a no-win situation, because if you raise a fuss you look like a diva, a liar, or a credit seeker, none of which are pretty. Just be sure to document the work that you have been doing, so that during review time you have a record of your accomplishments. If giving proper credit continues to be a problem, I recommend finding another organization that will appreciate your hard work!
Now, we gotta keep it real here – after reading all these tips, I know some of you may be thinking, “I can see how this stuff could be helpful if my boss is a great leader, but my boss is an idiot.” But managing up is not just about getting the most out of an effective leader, it is also about making difficult supervisors more tolerable. You may find that your boss is doing a bad job because she is completely overwhelmed by her responsibilities, or maybe she treats you badly because she feels like you don’t have her back. Before placing all of the blame on your supervisor, first figure out if there is more that you could be doing to manage up.
Rosetta Thurman is the co-author of How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar, 50 Ways to Accelerate Your Career, an accessible, do-it-yourself map of how to build a successful career in the nonprofit sector. Sign up here for her FREE teleclass this Thursday, May 5 called “Movin’ On Up: 7 Steps to Rock Your Nonprofit Job Search”