Shyamal Majumdar: How to be a good subordinate

Last Updated: Thu, Oct 25, 2012 20:40 hrs

Many years ago, I was privy to this conversation between a young executive and his colleague who was a few years senior to him. The subject matter was their common boss. After the young executive raved and ranted about the boss – how inconsiderate he is, how he doesn’t have the patience to listen to his innovative ideas, how he has the IQ (intelligence quotient) of an eraser, etc – his senior stopped him to say: “All of us have plenty of choices in life. Unfortunately, choosing your boss is not among them. So, your options are clear: either quit and find a new boss who agrees with you always (which is anyway a pipe dream), or learn how to deal with the existing one”. It was a simple advice but a blunt truth.

As I found out later, it wasn’t the problem of just one executive. Corporate corridors are rife with questions about bosses. Why are some bosses so difficult to deal with? My boss is a narcissist. Now what? These questions just don’t seem to go away.

Management guru Ram Charan has put the issue in perspective: “When it comes to boss-subordinate relationships, upcoming managers almost always think more deeply about what the boss and the company owes them, and more lightly, about what they owe in return”.

That precisely is the subject matter of Tata Sons Director R Gopalakrishnan’s fourth book, What the CEO really wants from you, which is being formally launched today (October 26). It’s an interesting book for two reasons: one, while the management world is replete with literature on how to be a great leader and what successful leadership is all about, there is little on how to be a great subordinate and how to regard understanding what your boss needs as an integral part of your job. This is important as leaders are also subordinates to their bosses. Two, more than management gyan, Gopalakrishnan relies more on case studies to drive home the point that two professors had raised more than 30 years ago in the Harvard Business Review.

In Managing your boss, John Gabarro and John Kotter introduced a powerful new lens through which to view the boss-subordinate relationship: one that recognised the mutual dependence of the participants. If the relationship between the two is rocky, then it is the subordinate who must begin to manage it unless, of course, the boss is of that rare devil incarnate variety. When you take the time to cultivate a productive working relationship – by understanding your boss’ strengths and weaknesses, priorities, and work style – everyone wins. Research has shown why effective leaders take time and effort to manage not only relationships with their subordinates but also those with their bosses. But some managers who actively and effectively supervise subordinates, products, markets and technologies assume an almost passively reactive stance vis-à-vis their bosses. Such a stance almost always hurts the subordinates and their companies.

The real value of the 211-page book, What the CEO really…, is to show how to be an outstanding subordinate to the many bosses you will have during your career. At the heart of Gopalakrishnan’s vision are the 4As – accomplishment, affability, advocacy and authenticity – that every executive must care for.

What do they mean?

Accomplishment: The ability to execute with efficiency and deliver results is something that is required throughout every subordinate’s working career. But that alone isn’t enough as you have to achieve the results in an acceptable manner. For example, one of the case studies in the book refers to somebody who had great ideas and could implement them well, but suffered from a sharp tongue and upset his peers quite easily.

Affability: It’s all about how can you disagree without being disagreeable; how you can listen carefully with an open mind; and how you can separate your rival’s views from your feelings from your rival?

Advocacy: In the early stage of your career, you are the recipient of instructions and get things done. In the middle management phase, you find the need to influence people without their directly reporting to you. And in the senior roles, you may exercise no control over the people you need to influence. This is the manner your skills of advocacy develop.

Authenticity: This is probably the most difficult attribute to learn and practise. Authentic people are the ones who are quick to admit when they have bungled. They confront the reality and get right out to do what is necessary. Many think authenticity is something that is applicable more to leaders, but the fact is that you cannot be a good subordinate without the required level of authenticity.

If these sound theoretical, read the book. The huge number of case studies illustrates each of the points to make them look real.

After reading the book, most subordinates would be tempted to concede that it’s not only bosses who need management expertise. Behind all the jargons, there should be a common sense: subordinates should know what they are doing, apply themselves and learn from their bosses. In other words, respect the work and the people who help you do it well.

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