Achieving Effects with Your Boss, pt. 1: First Impressions

On the list of items that leaders should care about, there are few higher than achieving effects with your boss.* The purpose is clear enough, to ensure alignment while creating opportunities for your own team. But leaders often place too much emphasis inward and downward during their key leadership time, and neglect to satisfy higher headquarter’s goals.

What’s more, achieving effects with your boss is a tough balancing act. Too assertive and you come off as pushy while alienating yourself from your peers. Too passive and you won’t gain the influence necessary to achieve your goals as a leader.

This series will provide you with the why, when, and how to engage your boss in ways that support his goals while achieving effects for your team. This post, First Impressions, is all about starting off on the right foot. And not to put undue pressure on you, but the process of gaining influence with your boss starts before you even arrive at the unit.

*Above it one might list achieving the mission and building trust with your subordinates.

boss

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey meets with Commander of the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger in Kabul, Afghanistan, Apr. 23, 2012. DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen.

Preparation

Congratulations! You just found out you’re going into a leadership position! It’s time to go to work.

Do some immediate research to orient yourself to the new terrain. What’s the unit’s mission, motto, history, and task organization? What is the training or deployment glide path? Find out who will be on your team when you get there and who your boss will be. Do all this quickly – you don’t want to sound ignorant if a senior leader (or worse, your future boss) calls to congratulate you.

You’ll obviously need to know a lot about your future team and how it operates, but in the context of this post, let’s focus on the boss. You need to educate yourself on who you will be working for. Google your future boss. Read articles he may have written. Read his biography on the unit home page. Talk to peers who may have worked with him in the past. Talk to mentors about the leadership environment you’re walking into.

This preparation will shape your initial communication with him and set conditions for your first meeting. It will also give you an idea of how the leader is perceived by those outside the chain of command, which could be important feedback in the future.

The First Round

The next step is important. You need to send an introductory note. What it says is less important than seizing a classy opportunity to show the boss you are excited to join the team and still recognize time-honored military traditions. You can do this by email, snail mail, or a combination where you type and sign a letter, then scan and attach it to an email. Either way, the most important part is to keep it short and to the point! This isn’t the time to give your life’s story, detail your leadership philosophy, or reveal your childhood goal to someday be General Patton.

Give a short intro, thank him for the opportunity to lead, take a sentence to tell him about your family, and inform him when you’ll be arriving at the new post or moving to your position. You can include a paragraph about your professional experience, but be brief – your new boss will have access to your file. Be sure to include your contact information below your signature block. (For reference, here is the Army Regulation on managing correspondence and the Iron Major’s Survival Guide has some tips, as well.)

Arrival

In the past, hopefully you have arrived at new installations to be greeted by a sponsor or someone from the team you’re joining who will help you get settled. This changes as you become a more senior leader. Your arrival becomes more visible to the command (especially if you are going into command). It’s entirely possible for your boss to be waiting at the doorstep of your new home as you finish your 10 hour drive. Think through what to do if this happens. You don’t need to be at the top of your game, but you also don’t want to be unshaven and visibly angry at your kids.

If you do arrive with no fanfare, be sure to send a quick note to either the boss or his immediate staff to let him know you made it. Update him with the move-in schedule so he knows when you’ll be available, which might also protect your family time to get settled. (Quick tip: if you are a leader, be sure to give your new team members plenty of time to get moved-in to the new home. There’s nothing worse than trying to learn a new job when the house is a disaster and your spouse is left to deal with it. My guidance: “Don’t come to work until you have pictures hung and it feels like a home.”)

Initial Meeting

Now, let’s take a look at the first official meeting. It may be an official counseling session or just an informal, “Welcome, step into the office.” If you are coming onto the team without a specified position yet (like as a junior staff Captain or a Sergeant First Class hoping to get a platoon), recognize that this meeting may also serve as an interview to see where you’ll fit on the team.

Regardless, your goals for the first encounter should be:

  1. Walk away with a clear sense of the boss’s priorities and expectations.
  2. Give him an accurate sense of who you are and how you will perform. (It’s a bad idea to put on a show up front without the skill to back it up later.)
  3. Make it evident that you recognize your place on his team, and aren’t solely focused on how you will lead your team.
  4. Figure out the way ahead. What changes are happening in the unit? When will you move into position? What can you work on in the meantime?

All bosses will have different methods, but yours may also want to see your file, including your Record Brief (or curriculum vitae), previous Evaluation Reports, and perhaps some command-related documents like your Command Guidance or Policy Letters. Consider carrying those with you in the first few days at the unit.

Also, rehearse how to tell your story. The boss wants to get to know you, but you’re not going to become best friends at this first meeting. Be brief, sincere, and humble. It’s likely that your boss has already done research on you, too, so you don’t need to go bragging for ten minutes about how great you were in your last assignment. Have an answer for what you want to do after the upcoming assignment and how long you plan to serve.

Finally, DO NOT forget to talk about your family. They are a critical part of your leadership experience. Make sure he knows that you recognize that.

The First 90 Days

The first 90 days is not the time for the change crusade. Similar to the advice that says Don’t try to change everything as soon as you take over an organization, you should also avoid trying to change your boss’s organization when you’re still new to the team. And be aware that subordinates may bombard you with problems that “must be fixed!”

If the issues that surface involve decisions your boss has made, stop and do your homework before storming into his office. (You may have the authority of command, but building credibility takes time.) Check the problem against his stated priorities and talk to your peers and advisors. This will give you an informed and accurate perspective of the leadership environment your boss has created.

Then take time to identify what areas you can realistically influence in the coming months and years, and strategically plan a method of engagement. (Later in this series, I’ll share some tips on how to engage your boss when you are trying to change a policy or reverse a decision.)

In these beginning months, make it abundantly clear that you understand your boss’s priorities and are in alignment with them. Answer his emails quickly, respond to requests for information, integrate his command guidance into yours, complete the unit training requirements that come down from higher, and send him updates on progress, even when they’re not required. Also use the opportunity to build the team across (aka, his team), which you can read more about here.

Finally, make it clear to your boss that you are open to honest and candid feedback about your performance. Some people aren’t comfortable with making performance corrections, even some bosses. But during this beginning phase, you definitely want to get back on course quickly if you happen to veer off.

Closeout

Pulling it all together…achieving effects with your boss begins early in your relationship. Start off right by doing your research, sending a short introduction email, intentionally preparing for the first meeting, aligning your priorities, and resisting the urge to spend all your capital on changing everything right away.

Look out for the next post in this series, which will cover the specifics of how and when to engage your boss to achieve effects for you and your team.

Questions for Leaders

  • What is your method for making a good first impression? Leave a comment below.
  • Could you state your boss’s priorities from memory? How can you better align with them?
  • Am I including my boss’s guidance when I think about my own approach to leadership?

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