Your big chance to tame the lion

September 22, 2006

The dreaded moment has arrived - your new boss's first day. Will he or she be a dragon? How will your job change? Harriet Swain outlines how to make a favourable impression and avoid getting burnt

Now's your chance. If you can just keep talking, not only will your new boss be impressed by your thorough knowledge, but you'll also stop your colleagues making as much of an impact.

Pause for breath for a minute. Don't you think your boss may want a bit of peace to get to grips with the role? And are you sure you're making the right kind of impact?

Lorna Froud, co-ordinator for information on the board of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, says it may be more useful to listen rather than talk. This will help you to understand your boss and his or her priorities. If there are things they dislike doing that you are good at and can help them with, you will quickly be appreciated.

John Arnold, professor of organisational behaviour at Loughborough University, says a new boss is usually overwhelmed with information, so if you have something you really want him or her to understand about you or the workplace, you should say it clearly and concisely. "Otherwise, even if they do take it all in, they will think you are a right old waffler," he warns.

He advises thinking hard about what you would really need to know in the boss's situation or, more selfishly, what would most help you for them to know, rather than giving a complete rundown of what is right or wrong about the place.

Let them know about the informal networks and culture, he says, but don't state this as fact in case not everyone shares your view. "You should express it as 'some of us here find that...'," he suggests.

Similarly, if tensions exist between certain colleagues you can let the boss know about them, but don't present them as a fact. A new person in charge may be able to resolve such difficulties.

Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, suggests presenting the boss, unsolicited, with a briefing note about your particular area of responsibility and other aspects of the workplace.

He acknowledges that this carries the risk of coming across as too pushy but argues that it is a risk worth taking. "There is nothing more satisfying than arriving and finding a well-produced briefing note from below," he says. Ewan McKendrick, who became Oxford University's pro vice-chancellor for research, academic services and university collections in June, says he prefers to cross-examine people verbally.

"What I want is someone who can explain to me what they are doing, why they are doing it and what the problems are," he says. He prefers people who have thought carefully about their jobs and can discuss them and who are honest about any problems. However, he also expects employees to get on with the job and take responsibility. "If I ask colleagues to do something, and they agree to do it, I expect them to do it without me having to look over their shoulder to check that the job has been done."

Wooldridge says you need to demonstrate good relationships in your team.

You can do this by inviting your boss to socialise with colleagues over a cup of coffee or glass of wine. You also need to help him or her meet important external stakeholders.

Froud says you need to acknowledge when a member of your team has helped you, rather than take all the credit in an effort to impress. "You don't want to impress your boss and not impress your colleagues," she warns.

However, you should try to make yourself indispensable. If you have particular skills needed by the team - in IT or marketing, for example - you should use them even if they are not officially part of your job description.

More generally, you should turn up on time, go beyond the call of duty rather than clock-watch, and "be friendly but not in an obsequious, sucking-up way", she says. "If you can volunteer for things, they will always remember that you pitched in, especially if you were helpful in a bit of a crisis."

What a new boss will find particularly irritating are constant questions they cannot answer. "Ask, but don't keep asking questions that you might be able to answer yourself," she advises. "Try to be resourceful and think things through first."

If you do have a question or problem that only the new boss can solve, try to broach it with a positive attitude and perhaps offer a possible solution.

Peter Totterdell, senior research fellow at the Institute of Work Psychology at Sheffield University, says positive attitudes and enthusiasm are contagious and likely to be reciprocated. He says you will have to come to terms with the fact that some aspects of your job will change. A willingness to be flexible will allow you to take a stand on an issue when necessary without being seen as uncompromising.

However, you do need to be proactive in shaping your job. "A new boss offers you the opportunity to address some of the things you don't like about your current role by crafting a new one," he says. It is therefore important not to slip into doing things that you find difficult, because once a perception of what your job entails is set in place it will be harder to change.

It may also be hard to change perceptions of your personality. Arnold says first impressions tend to last, especially if the person making a judgment about you is under pressure, so you need to think carefully about the image you want to project at your first meeting.

And don't be too quick to jump to conclusions. Wooldridge says that even if you have major misgivings about a new boss, you must give them the benefit of the doubt.

Further information

Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services:

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education:


Get to know what makes your boss tick

Think about your job and how it could change

Be nice about colleagues

Be positive

Get on with it

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