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My boss is too busy for me

I was sooo excited to start my first job. I grinned like a teenager in love as I woke up for work an hour before my alarm went off and, of course, made sure I was there approx. two hours before anyone else…… every single day. I attended meetings and drank corporate coffee and ate the free fruit on Tuesday’s and had a team to work with. It was better than anything I could have ever imagined. I felt like I was on cloud nine. (Right now you might be thinking to yourself, “Oh my gosh, who is this woman? Had you known me in school, I would have compared myself to Hermione Granger. Maybe that helps.) When I received my first weekly invite for a 1:1 with my boss, I didn’t know what to do. Internally I was freaking out (in a good way!), but simultaneously had no idea what I would say. Unfortunately, the anticipation was for nothing because my boss never showed up to the meeting. 

Week after week I would head into the conference room with a prepared list of things to talk about, but no one to speak to. With each week my frustrations grew and I started to feel like I wasn’t valued. I felt as if my boss had enough time to hang with the guys at lunch, after which he would lackadaisically meander back into the office to partake in meetings with the team, but he didn’t have time for an employee who was supposed to be building one of his departments. In a 13 person company you’d like to think the boss has enough time for every employee, so I vented to a colleague. His response? “He is the head of the company, he probably has more important things to do.” Ouch!

If you have read all of my blogs you will probably find the following sentences in half of them: Everyone wants to feel like they are a part of something. Everyone wants to feel like they belong. I can most certainly tell you that I often asked myself the question, “Why am I even here? If my boss doesn’t care enough about the work I’m doing to attend our 1:1, move the meeting to a better time slot, or even cancel the meeting so I am not wasting my time sitting in a conference room when I could be working, then why am I here?”.

I’ve tried to think about how I would manage that boss today, after 15 years of work experience. Here is what I came up with: 

He/She probably doesn’t even know

Think about it like this: Do you have a friend whose house is super dirty but they don’t clean it because they don’t see the dirt they are living in? Like your filthy friend, your boss might simply not realize that 1) you need their support and 2) they need to make time for you. Some bosses really are that busy. I am most certainly not trying to justify why your boss is/isn’t doing what they should be, i.e. properly managing their employees. I am trying to tell you that you may need to explicitly tell them where they are falling short. Put it on their radar.

Here’s how I would handle it: “I’ve noticed that you keep getting pulled in different directions on these projects. I’m trying to be conscious of your time, but as we get deeper into this project there are going to be a few things that I need your input on. I would really like to get a regular meeting cadence on your calendar so that we can discuss my questions and talk through any concerns I have. My suggestion is to setup a 1:1 with you every other week. This will allow our interactions to be more structured. I can collect my questions and address them in one session as opposed to having to run to you every time something comes up.”

I find that by recognizing and addressing the immense stress a person is under and telling them that you want to remove some of that pressure by structuring your time with them, they are more amenable to the discussion of adding another meeting to their calendar. You can always cancel if there is nothing talk about.

Take the initiative

Even if you don’t have the immediate need to meet with your boss, it is still good practice to meet with them on a regular basis so they are up-to-speed on your project and anything else you have going on.  If you don’t already have a 1:1 on the calendar, I would encourage you to take the initiative to put a meeting on your boss’s calendar for every other week. Make sure your title is clear (e.g. Brittany/Jack Bi-Weekly 1:1) and define an agenda. This could be as simple as: 

- Status of current project deliverables
- Project wins/struggles
- Professional growth opportunities
- Walk-in items

I find that setting a more general agenda for the meeting series will allow you to recall topics you need to discuss on-the-fly (i.e. when you haven’t had a chance to prepare). It is also just good business practice to have a defined meeting subject and agenda. If you don’t tell people what they are there to talk about, how will they know 1) why they need to prioritize your meeting and 2) how they can prepare. Think about it.

It’s urgent

When I have something extremely urgent I need to discuss, I do not wait for my designated weekly 1:1 time slot. Depending on the topic I either call my boss directly or send a message to him on Microsoft Teams. That message could look something like this: “Hi Jack, There is an issue that could impact the launch of our new software. The team and I have deemed this issue a showstopper. I need to talk through our recommended path forward with you. When do you have time to meet this morning?”. 

What do I love about this?
1) You are giving them a high level overview of the problem (skip the details until you talk!).
2) You are communicating what you and the rest of the team need.
3) You are planning to come with solutions to the problem, and not just the problem itself.
4) You are giving a timeframe of when you need to speak with them.

I have had a boss or two tell me that they do not have time. Here is what I say in those instances, “I need you to please make this a priority.” or “Is there someone you can delegate to approve our solution on your behalf?”. At the end of the day, your boss has to trust that you are pulling them away from their priorities for something that truly matters. My recommendation: Only cry wolf if you need to.

Find a mentor

There may come a point where you recognize that you won’t get what you need from your direct manager. It’s a tough realization to come to, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. In these scenarios, I encourage you to get the feedback that you need by finding a mentor.

Some organizations setup a formal Mentor Program to help employees get acclimated to the workplace, set them up for success within the organization, have someone guide you along your career path, as well as create a safe environment for you to address both personal and professional topics. Whether your organization has a formal program or not, it is crucial that a mentor and mentee have a good working relationship. You need a mentor that you can trust, someone who will help elevate your career, as well as call you out on your shit.

Some companies do not have a formal program and, in those cases, it is important to first get to know an individual before you approach someone and ask them to be your mentor. I talk about finding someone within the workplace, but another great option is to reach out to a connection within a similar industry (e.g. via university alumni programs). Have a clear idea of what your expectations are and what you hope to gain from the relationship.

Whether it is getting the advice you need to make good decisions or coaching to make you a better business man/woman, you need the input of more experienced individuals to grow personally, as well as take your career to the next level. If you are struggling to get the attention of your boss, always remember there are other places to look both inside and out of your organization. No true leader would ever ask you to settle for what you’ve got (given you have an absent boss), because it could potentially cost you advancement opportunities for your career. Take the initiative to get what you need!

If you are unable to manage up and can’t find a good mentor, you can always read more about being a stay-at-home dad. 😉