As a coach, I’m frequently called upon to help clients navigate challenging situations with a boss. Sometimes the problems have lingered for years and have festered into deep frustration and anger. Other times, I’ll hear from people who already have good boss relationships but want to make them great relationships.
In most cases, the key is reframing the boss/subordinate relationship into a more productive mindset, and one that’s in step with today’s economy. Specifically, stop thinking of your boss as a boss, and start thinking of him or her as your customer.
The boss as the customer
At the most fundamental level, your boss has hired you to provide a service that he or she needs in order to succeed. Whether you’re a receptionist answering phones and greeting visitors, a global department head ensuring that productivity and costs goals are met, or a CEO reporting to investors or board members on company earnings, you’re always being paid to provide your “customer” (i.e., your boss) with something that he or she needs to be successful—and the job you do is actually the “product” you provide to your customer.
And in today’s fast-paced, turbulent, flexible workforce-oriented economy, it’s easier than ever for your “customer” to find another “supplier,” and you have plenty of “competitors” who are eager to demonstrate that they deliver a better product than you do.
How well do you know your customer?
As any successful entrepreneur will tell you, the most important thing is to understand your customer. Yet many professionals never invest the time tounderstand their boss from the “customer” perspective. Here are some questions to ask yourself, and the key is to answer from your boss’s perspective, not just your own.
- What does your boss want to achieve?
- What would he or she define as success?
- What does your boss need out of you in order to achieve that success?
- What are the biggest challenges your boss faces?
- Looking one level higher, what does your boss’s boss see as success, what challenges is he or she facing, and how does that impact what your boss needs from you?
- If you were in your boss’s place, how satisfied would you be with the service he or she is getting from you? Would you start looking elsewhere?
If you find yourself struggling with any of these questions (as many people do), that means you don’t yet know your customer well enough. But now you know where to start.
Market yourself, target your product, and serve your customer
Once you know your customer, you’re set to start marketing yourself, targeting your product, serving your customer, and building a great boss relationship.
- When talking to your boss, always be mindful of his or her needs.
- Always explain your work from the perspective of how it meets his or her needs.
- Be aware of what other service providers your boss could choose to use, and understand why your boss believes you’re the best option.
- If you’re not the best option, how do you need to change your product so that you become the best?
- When there is conflict, ask yourself what your boss needs that he or she isn’t getting from you? How can you solve that problem for him or her?
More important today than ever before
The traditional view of a boss is rooted in an outdated understanding of the workplace that largely no longer applies in today’s economy. A generation ago, many people worked for a single company for their entire career, and there was an understood commitment between a company and the employee. Today that commitment no longer exists, and we live in a world of rapid change, outsourcing, easily replaced contract staff, and persistently high unemployment in most sectors.
This means that most bosses now have many suppliers to choose from—whether they’re looking for a receptionist, a department head, or a CEO— and there are many other suppliers who would love to demonstrate why their product is better for your boss than yours.However, you have a tremendous advantage because you’re able to understand your customer better than anyone else can—but that’s only if you’re focused on using that advantage.
A final note—Unwinnable situations and making sure to do your part
On a final note, not all boss relationship problems are resolvable, and this can happen for a large number of reasons. There are many poor bosses, just as there are many bad and unreasonable customers. However, before giving up on any relationship, and rather than suffering through crippling frustration, always take the step to make sure you’ve looking at your boss from the right perspective, that you’re truly understanding your boss’s needs, and that you’re serving your most important customer—your boss—to the best of your ability.
Great article Gerry! Everything you say is very true and relevant. Looking at and treating your boss like a customer is exactly the right way to operate. Thanks for your perspective!
You are welcome Adam. I’m glad it was helpful.
Perspective!!! Who should not be regarded and treated as a customer?…Nobody
Ted – Very true, and something that’s often forgotten; particularly with a boss. Thanks for the comment.
With a change of perspective, you can see a different picture of the same thing. After looking from several distinctly different perspectives you see a more completet picture, leading to better decisions on your part. The boss as a customer is distinctly different from boss as the master or ranking officer. A third perspective is the boss as a human being, complete with feelings and needs. Sometimes you salute the officer with a quick, “yes, sir,” or “yes, mam.” Sometimes the boss is a customer. You work out the price and terms of the service you offer. Always, the boss is another human being who should to be treated with respect and kindness. From the other direction, boss to employee the same rules apply. Somtimes you demand compliance. Sometimes you work out the terms of the agreement. Always, you treat them with respect and kindness.
Steve – Great point! Another way I’ve put it is “always remember bosses are people too.” That perspective can really help a lot of situations too. Thanks for the input.
Great article Gerry. I also like to think of a boss as ‘the client’…as a consultant might say. A ‘guru’ and much loved consultant that I trained with had a great way of putting it when working with clients that I find helpful to apply to a boss – employee relationship or to a customer /client. The late Kathleen (Kathie) Dannemiller (Ann Arbor, MI) used to say “if you’re arguing with the client you’ve become the client.” When thought of like that…imagine how a boss might feel…:).
Thanks much, Gerry…
Great comment! Thank you. Yes, I believe the consulting industry is a great training ground for this concept. In fact, I believe consulting experience prepares professionals very well in many ways for the realities of today’s highly competitive and dynamic work environment. In addition to understanding the client (aka boss) as customer, good consultants are well trained to constantly be aware of the value they brining to the table.
Again, thank you.
Never thought of it from this perspective… since the beginning of my career and striving to move into leadership, I always felt my boss (or when I become one) is the service provider, liaison, or enabler that helps his “customers” (his direct reports) achieve success.
This is a very different view than I have programmed myself to work toward throughout the years, especially since moving into a leadership role, and I thank you for that.
“You can only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” – Fortune Cookie
I’m glad the article was helpful. I also want to thank you for your response, because you bring up an important concept that is actually the corollary to what I wrote.
There is a leadership practice referred to as “servant leadership.” Under this approach, rather than seeing themselves as the ones in power, leaders view their role as enabling success for their staff and company. This leadership approach focus on build skills in areas like effective listening, emotional intelligence, and persuasion. As you might imagine, the combination of boss as customer and servant leadership can drive very dramatic increases in business results.
Again, thank you for the input. I will likely write a future blog article on servant leadership, so please be on the lookout.