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You Can’t Move Up If You’re Stuck in Your Boss’s Shadow
Author: Rebecca Knight (hbr.org)
Having a good boss — someone who stands up for you, who buffers you from interoffice politics, and who competently represents your team to the rest of the company — is a wonderful thing. Except when it’s harmful to your career. If you aren’t visible to others in the company, you’re unlikely to have a strong network, expand your influence, and move up in the organization. How do you come out from behind your boss’s shadow?
What the Experts Say
It used to be that the surest path to career greatness entailed “hitching your wagon to a star manager — as your boss rose, you rose too,” says Priscilla Claman, the president of Career Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm and a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job. Today, things are different. “Attaching yourself to someone who has a bright future is not the best strategy for getting ahead,” she says. For one, people change jobs more than they used to, which means you can’t predict where your boss is going to end up. For another, your company could alter its management structure or change directions. “And your boss may fall out of favor,” Claman says. “The only way to survive that is if you have relationships across the organization and are seen as credible on your own, not just [someone] who’s ridden your boss’s coattails.”
Putting aside a worst-case scenario, being seen as just your boss’s right-hand man can also be “detrimental to your career in the long run because nobody but your boss appreciates what you can do,” says Karen Dillon, coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life? “You need others to know your value, and understand where you fit in the organization.” After all, she points out: decisions on raises, promotions, and bonuses are rarely made by your boss alone. Here are some strategies for how to make that happen.
Recognize the problem
Even when you have a good relationship with your manager, it can still be a struggle to make your mark. The problem is often that one, you’re not visible to others in the company — perhaps because your boss does not give you public credit for your contributions — and two, you don’t have a big enough network on your own. A good litmus test for determining whether you are in your boss’s shadows is to ask yourself: Can I name three people outside my department who understand what I do and what I’m good at? You may have plenty of surface-level relationships with other folks at the office, but the mark of a good network, according to Dillon, is “at least three people—at your level and above—who can describe your job and the value you bring to the organization.” Of course it’s also important to know colleagues who sit beneath you on the org chart, but peers and senior managers are typically “the ones who can pull you into interesting projects and open doors for you,” she says.
Ask your boss for help
The best-placed person to increase your visibility at the company and expand your network is your boss. So, make the request. Ask your manager to publicly recognize your contributions at high-level meetings so that others will begin to recognize your value. And ask for help connecting with colleagues across the organization. Preface the conversation by saying something like, “I love working with you and I want to talk about how I can continue to grow and find opportunities to learn new things” and meet new people, says Dillon. By beginning this way, she says, “you’re implicitly saying, ‘I want to represent you, but I also want to broaden my horizons.’” Then ask your boss, “Who should I get to know better?” And, “Who would be valuable for me to connect with?” “If you work for a big company, ask your boss to make an introduction — you’re looking for a blessing and endorsement,” she says. “Your boss should want you to develop your own reputation because that enhances his reputation as well.”
Seek new and different opportunities
“If you’re viewed as a mini-me of your boss, you need to identify opportunities to differentiate yourself,” says Claman. Offer to help with a project that will increase your exposure to new parts of the company. Serve on a focus group to assess a new vendor or benefit options. Volunteer for a committee that will include people from other functions and departments. “If, for instance, you hear about a newly formed task force, tell your boss you think it would be a good idea for you to represent your department on it.” Your boss will be unable to turn you down if you volunteer in a meeting where others have heard you volunteer, or if the request is an important administrative priority, says Claman. To get your boss to say yes, “You have to show the value to your boss, your department, and your organization,” she says.
Speak up in meetings
Expanding your relationships at work and increasing your interaction with senior management requires you to make concerted efforts to raise your profile. Ask your boss if you can sit in on an important meeting with higher-ups; ask the marketing team if you can tag along on a sales call with a prominent client. “Before the meeting, ask your boss if there is anything he’d like you to prepare,” says Claman. And during the meeting, make yourself useful. “You’re there to learn,” she says. “Offer to take notes and then afterwards, distribute the notes under your name.” Don’t interrupt your boss and “don’t undermine what he’s saying, but look for opportunities where you can chime in and display your knowledge and expertise in a way that genuinely enriches the conversation,” adds Dillon. Share your ideas. Offer your opinion. And use the “we” pronoun, she says. Your comments should “reflect the work you did with your boss.”
Socialize with your colleagues
If you want colleagues to get to know you better and to see you as your own person, you need to put yourself in a variety of professional and social situations. “Look for places where you can establish a personal connection with the people you work with,” says Claman. Take advantage of informal opportunities — in the cafeteria, through the company softball league, or through a charity run. If your office doesn’t have philanthropic activities, consider organizing one. At formal occasions, such as the company holiday party and the office picnic, you need to make a concerted effort to socialize. Even if these events are not your thing, it’s important to go and “make it your mission” to connect with people outside your typical work orbit, says Dillon.
“Sometimes the real world moves more slowly than you would like,” says Dillon. Establishing a reputation independent of your boss takes time.” If you’re feeling frustrated by the pace of your career and are worried about being forever in the shadows of your manager, ask yourself: Am I growing? Am I learning? Am I enjoying what I’m doing?
Principles to Remember
Ask your boss to introduce you to others in the company
Volunteer for projects and committees that enable you to meet new colleagues and learn new skills
Make an effort to socialize with coworkers and get to know people on a personal level
Be a wallflower in high-level meetings; look for opportunities to display your expertise
Be afraid to apply for jobs and opportunities that would take you away from your boss
Lose sight of the fact that establishing your own reputation sometimes take longer than you’d like
Case Study #1: Volunteer your time and expertise
Laura Troyani had a good job in marketing research at a consumer products company in the Boston area. Her colleagues were professional, and her boss — the head of the department — was a “great manager” whom she “learned a lot from.”
But the work — more advisory than direct marketing — did not excite her and Laura knew her career path would be limited if she simply followed in her boss’s footsteps. She felt in the shadows and knew she needed to not only expand her skillset but also to broaden her network.
She took matters into her own hands. Laura set up a meeting with the leader of the broader marketing team. “I told him that I loved the company and had some extra time on top of the job I was doing, then asked if there were any side projects I could help out with.”
Her boss signed off and Laura started helping out with a couple of the marketing group’s data-oriented projects, which complemented work she did in her primary role. Laura enjoyed the experience and through that formed new professional relationships with the sales team.
In addition, Laura, a self-described “a natural introvert” forced herself to participate in social activities at work. She played in the company’s softball league and joined its dodgeball team.
A year later, after an internal restructuring, a position opened on the consumer marketing team that called for someone with a quantitative background. Laura was the perfect fit. “It ended up being the slam-dunk job I really wanted,” she says.
Today she is the marketing director of TINYhr, the Seattle-based company that makes employee engagement software.
Case Study #2: Capitalize on opportunities to offer your ideas and insights
Connie Bentley left her career in teaching for a sales job at a large business services corporation. She excelled in the new role and was soon promoted to district sales manager covering Connecticut and Massachusetts. But after three years, she had twice been passed over for a regional manager job.
Connie’s boss was a “good guy” with whom she had a “candid” relationship. “I asked him what I needed to do to be considered for regional manager and how I could bring more value to the company.”
Scott’s advice was not particularly helpful. “He told me that I already brought value to the company and that I needed to keep doing what I was doing,” she recalls.
Connie was dispirited and considered quitting. “When you’re feeling stuck or in the shadows, you think the only way out is to leave the company,” she says.
But just as she was starting to dust off her resume, she was invited to a recognition dinner for top performers. Fortuitously, she was seated next to the president of her division. He praised her for having done well at the company and asked how the company helped make that happen.
Connie wanted to make a good impression, but she decided to be respectfully frank. She told him that while the company had helped her progress, it could have done a lot more. “I gave him some ideas: a formal boot camp for rookie sales people, or a safe practice environment where they could learn-by-doing before going out on calls.”
Soon after that dinner, the division president called her to ask if she’d be willing to move to New York City to become the company’s first sales training and development manager. “I said I wanted the job, but first, ‘Have you spoken to my boss? And is he okay with this?’”
Scott signed off on the move. Today Connie is based in San Francisco as the US General Manager for Insights, the global talent development firm. “That job got me into the field where I belong,” she says.