1. Porter, Janet PhD
  2. Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH


"The Management Moment" is a regular column within the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. Janet Porter, PhD, and Edward Baker, MD, MPH, MSc, are serving as The Management Moment Editors. Dr. Porter is Associate Dean for Executive Education, The North Carolina Institute for Public Health, School of Public Health, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Dr. Baker is Director of the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, School of Public Health, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This column provides commentary and guidance on timely management issues commonly encountered in public health practice.


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Years ago, a colleague, Brian, spent months bitterly complaining about his boss and how hard she was to work for. In an effort to help Brian sort out what type of person he worked well with, Brian was asked how many bosses he had had during his career. After reflecting for a minute, Brian replied, "Five." Asked which of the five bosses he had really liked, Brian reflected even longer before answering, "None of them." That revelation meant that the problem was not-as previously thought-the impossible boss, but instead that Brian did not like working for anybody-and probably should be his own boss. Shortly thereafter, Brian left that job and went into business for himself because he understood that he thrived on working independently.


Actually, most of us aren't going into business for ourselves, as Brian did. Rather, if you work in public health, it is more than likely that you have a boss, a supervisor, a board: someone to whom you are accountable. You may be lucky and only have one boss, but even under that scenario, you still have other stakeholders who you have to please to get your work done and to keep your job.


We know from Gallup poll research, reported in First, Break All the Rules,1 that the old adage: "Employees don't leave their job, they leave their bosses" is true. And, oftentimes, we think about that truism and reflect on how wonderful the world of employment would be if managers were simply easier to work for. But let's turn that around and think about what public health staff and managers can do to have better relationships with their bosses. Within organizational structures, a key to success and promotion is your relationship with your boss. We tend to think about managing those who report to us rather than managing those we report to. But what are the tips to successful boss-management?


Tip #1: Know Yourself and Pick a Boss Who Fits With You

The first key to success is to diligently interview the person you'll be working for at the same time they are interviewing you to determine whether there is a good fit. In job interviewing situations where you are anxious to make a good impression, it is challenging to be equally discerning to determine if this person is someone you want to work for. You are trying to figure out if you are compatible; the key to insight about compatibility is knowing what is important to you in a prospective boss. As Jeff, a public health official, stated, "I've decided that the most important characteristics for me in a boss are someone who is smart, works hard, and can be trusted. At this point in my career, I only want to work for people I respect, and I don't respect people who aren't smart, hard-working, or trustworthy." You cannot screen out "bad boss fits" with your workstyle unless you can be as succinct as Jeff. Do you know what is essential to you in selecting the ideal boss? One trick for determining the ideal boss is to take index cards and write one of the following words on each card: participatory, decisive, smart, trustworthy, loyal, resourceful, connected, strategic, honest, team-builder, coach, empowering, patient, dependable, organized, respected, and secure; then put the cards in order. Do you at this stage of career most want to work for someone who is a good coach or someone is connected? Those are the choices you will have to make about the relative importance of various characteristics.


The best people to tell you what your potential new boss is like are his or her current direct reports. Meeting individually with them and asking them pointed questions about what the person is like to work for is essential-but can be politically tricky. So, simply ask direct reports to relate a story about the boss that illustrates the person's workstyle and values. Then, listen carefully to the stories you hear and think about what picture they paint.


Look for the longevity on the team as you interview. If everyone is new, that tells you something. High turnover of staff should be a major warning sign and worthy of scrutiny. If they are all lifers, that tells you something too. If you want a boss who will nurture your career and provide you opportunities for growth, you need to listen for stories of people who have gone on to positions of greater responsibility after being groomed by your new boss.


Naturally, as you meet the team, you will be trying to evaluate whether these are individuals you want to work with. Do they seem passionate and competent and fun? But instead of seeing them as potential colleagues, reflect for a moment on what the team says about what the boss values. For example, if the boss selects and promotes individuals who are highly competent but averse to change and primarily promote the status quo, then you have to determine if this is an organization that will stimulate your personal need for change and challenge.


What we want in the person we work for evolves over time. Patience is key when you are young in your career. It is natural to want to work for someone who has scheduled an organized orientation to your new job and patiently teaches you all the policies and procedures. You want someone who is there for you, answering your questions and pointing you in the right direction. But then over time, managers evolve to wanting to work for someone who leaves them alone, someone who trusts them and empowers them to do their job. When selecting a new opportunity, evaluate all the dimensions of the job-with special emphasis on your perceived compatibility with your new boss.


Tip #2: Have Your Boss Define Success for You

How many times have you heard someone despair, "I just don't know what my boss wants!!" Well, the best way to find out is to ask. The core question is: "If I am really successful in my job, a year from now, what will have happened?" In other words, "What constitutes a home run?" It is amazing the number of people who cannot answer that question about someone they've reported to for many years.


Sandy, a manager who had been in her job for 15 years, was lamenting that she was being replaced. She offered, "There has never been a major mistake in my entire time here. How can they do this to me?" When it was pointed out that perhaps the employer wanted change, wanted the organization to be dynamic and responsive to the community and that risk-free program management might not be what the organization valued, Sandy commented, "But that is ridiculous!! Who would want to hire a manager who made mistakes!!" Sandy could literally not see that she worked for someone who tolerated mistakes, as long as there was innovation and learning from those mistakes. Sadly, Sandy had never asked her boss-who was the same individual during that entire 15 years-to define success. Perhaps more important, Sandy had not observed the behavior of peers and tried to determine what characteristics of those peers made them so successful. Rather, Sandy chose to attribute their success to personal favoritism-rather than seeing that their behavior reflected what the boss valued: the creation of a dynamic, enterprising organization highly responsive to the communities they served.


Ideally, you want a boss who can say what she or he wants the outcome of the work to be and can provide guidance on concerns or suggestions that relate to achieving the outcome. Further, it is best that the boss not say too much about how you achieve the outcome; you should be given the responsibility to figure that out.


Tip #3: Agree on Communication Style

Because management is all about communication, it is critical that you have a meeting of the minds with your boss about how often you will communicate, how much detail you will provide, what types of problems or challenges she wants to be involved with and how formal or informal she wants to be. Agreeing on the frequency of individual or team meetings is the first step. But after reaching agreement on that, the next question is what does the boss want to know? For example, at the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, we take great pride in our partnerships. Thus, those in management are really interested in knowing when partnerships are not going well. When agreements with other public health organizations or schools on campus are being negotiated that establish the framework for the working relationship, management wants to know. But lots of other decisions related to program design or cost or location are totally within the purview of staff. So, knowing what the organization values and what types of information need to be transmitted to key stakeholders is key.


Central to good communication is understanding the depth of detail expected. One public health manager could not restrain herself from explaining how the clock got built whenever she was asked what time it was. Despite repeated coaching that her boss valued brevity of communication above everything else, she persisted in giving him far more information than he wanted-to the detriment of their working relationship. Clearly, communication style is a broader indication of overall management style. The boss who empowers probably wants less information, whereas the boss who wants details may tend to micro-manage.


Knowing how your boss wants to be told is equally key. Some managers are averse to e-mail (and particularly hearing bad news via e-mail) and want to be told personally, or by voice mail at the very least. So, reaching agreement and asking the right questions, about what and how and when the boss wants to receive information and be involved in decision making is central to having a good relationship.


An operating principle for most managers is "no surprises." While that is a good credo, the next question is, what doesn't she want to be surprised about? So understanding what constitutes a big issue relative to financial performance, community relations, staffing problems, or public relations issues is essential to staying out of trouble. Ask your boss about the "no surprises" rule. Some feel more strongly than others about this.


Tip #4: Be Flexible

Janey, a public health manager with a record of success, could never warm up to her new boss, who was seen as highly effective but aloof. While others commented on how much they enjoyed working with the new boss, Janey was at a loss as to how to develop the close personal relationship-even friendship-that she had with her previous supervisors. She was disappointed that despite repeated attempts to socialize with her boss, she had still not gotten to know her the way she wanted to. Because Janey had a high need for affiliation, she needed to be personally connected to her boss and her inability to adapt to a more reserved style left her feeling so disconnected that she finally took another job.


While it is important to know yourself (see Tip #1 above), it is also important to be flexible and to allow your boss to define the format of the relationship. If you are in touch with your core values and appreciate that those core values are being met, then you can let go of areas where the boss falls short of meeting your desired relationship. For example, if you thrived on the opportunities for community involvement stimulated by your boss in your previous job but those opportunities are not available now, perhaps you can find an outlet for getting involved in the community in a meaningful way outside your job. The question is whether that dimension of your relationship with your boss is essential or merely desired. In short, it is your job to adapt to your boss' style, not vice versa.


Tip #5: Understand Whose Opinion the Boss Values

Fred commented that the most valuable lesson he learned in his public health internship was to get along with the boss' secretary. That was a hard-fought lesson since his first boss' secretary decided she didn't like Fred and sabotaged every project he worked on during his internship. Whether it is the boss' secretary or the board of health or the next-door neighbor, knowing whose opinion your boss values and from whom he or she will get information about your performance should shape who you work to develop relationships with. For many years, one of the most popular elective courses at Harvard's MBA program was "Organizational Politics." When a graduate was asked what she got out of the course, she commented, "If you want to influence the organization, influence your boss; if you want to influence your boss, find out who influences him or her." That says it all.


Upward Mobility

These five tips related not only to the success in your current job, but also in positioning yourself for opportunities. Career opportunities come about because people in positions of power and influence think highly enough of some staff that they promote their talents and potential to others. If you want to maximize the opportunities available to you in your career, you need to stop and evaluate how your relationship is with your boss on a regular basis and be objective about the role you are playing in enhancing or hurting that relationship. It only takes a moment to change your mind.


In summary, we suggest that you give special attention to managing the relationship with your boss, both in the process of deciding whether to accept a new position or within the daily interaction with current boss. It has been said that "relationships are primary, everything else is derivative." In no other work relationship is this more true, than with your boss.


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1. Buckingham M, Coffman, C. First, Break All the Rules. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 1999. [Context Link]