Is Your Boss in Your Way?

Every supervisor knows that the politically correct attitude is one of encouraging the development of their ambitious, hard-working, hi-potential subordinates, giving them visibility, helping management see their work, notice their potential. So why doesn’t this always happen?

We all want to be noticed, heard, understood, and recognized. And we want to know we’re being noticed in this way by those whose opinion we care most about. In the workplace this includes not only our boss, but our boss’s boss and superiors. This is equally true of those who make a show of seeking attention and those who are more reserved or inhibited about calling attention to themselves.  

Although research from the past 10 years suggests that men are more likely to be seekers of this kind of attention, I believe gender research often trails social realities. Among the professional segment of the workforce today, it’s safe to say this is a virtually universal and ubiquitous phenomenon.  

So, what’s the best way to address your understandable interest in being seen, noticed, and recognized for the value you’re able to contribute to the business? And what’s the role of your boss in helping you with this goal? Or, are there some of you who’ve discovered that your boss is actually part of the problem, that he or she may be blocking your ability to be seen? 

The Obvious Approach

Put it in your development plan! Before that, it may be raised in discussion with your direct supervisor. He or she might welcome your interest and even join you in figuring out ways to get your work and contributions noticed. Let something you are doing become the occasion for meeting superiors who have reason to care about the impact and results of that work.  

This is certainly the more natural means of pursuing your aims. Even those of us who are a bit more inhibited and unlikely to do as well with schmoozing and networking can rally some measure of social confidence when talking about our work (rather than about ourselves). Even if one is a bit anxious, that feeling will be easily dismissed if his or her substantive contributions carry the day.  

Alas, not all managers are quite as skilled or inclined to help the ambitious up-and-comer design this kind of strategy and help execute it. Some supervisors continue to identify so closely with the work that they have trouble stepping back to let their subordinates shine. And some are equally or more eager to grab the attention of superiors, so it’s hard for them to share “time in the sun.”  

That doesn’t mean that this cannot change. I believe that some supervisors would be happy to help if they knew how, and if their own needs were safeguarded. This is simply human psychology — some of us are readier than others to play this role. Getting better takes learning. But isn’t this kind of a catch 22? How can a supervisor lacking this self-awareness break out of their constraints?  

Enter the Savvy HR Executive

Notice that I say “executive.” For an HR manager to intervene in the way I’ll describe, they’ll need to be mature, have credibility with senior leaders, and be able to manage the essential subtleties of the process. Let me describe this approach a bit more concretely.  

First, a talented HR executive (could be a director, VP, or even manager by title — credibility is the key), will usually have a sense of who the supervisors are who may be most vulnerable to blocking visibility of high-potential direct reports. They’re often those who are most eager to get attention themselves. So, the HR executive is likely to know where to look for those who may not be getting their “day in the sun.” 

Second, this HR executive is also better able to find ways to get face time with prospective up-and-comers for any number of reasons. And they are able to recognize how their work might be of interest to senior leaders — what distinguishes the person’s approach to the work and suggests potential for doing more. This will usually be enough for the HR executive to target the right senior leader. 

Finally, the HR executive is able to prepare the senior leader for a skip-level conversation with the aspiring professional. There are always new “programs” that we can gin up in HR, so this individual attention can be framed as being part of a larger program. That way, the supervisor of this individual does not need to feel singled out. Indeed, he or she can indeed be included in some recognition later for his or her role in developing the person.  

But What If I’m the Up-and-Comer Impatiently Waiting?

My suggestion is that if you are concerned that you are not getting enough opportunity to get noticed by senior leadership, you should try going to HR yourself. But do this only after you’ve tried to work things out with your boss for a reasonable period of time. He or she may be sincerely interested and able, but he or she may not think it’s the right time. They may know something you don’t know. 

But after giving it a reasonable amount of time and effort, it is appropriate to go to HR to discuss this concern. The HR person may want to better understand what’s going in your department and may need to learn a bit more about you and your reasons for wanting more exposure at this time. There do need to be business-relevant criteria for orchestrating this kind of developmental experience and making it timely and worthwhile for all parties involved. 

What you don’t want to do is sit privately for too long with your frustrated desires for getting noticed. If the work you are doing and have done warrants notice and attention, and if you’re eager to learn more about how this work is viewed by senior management, there’s probably a way to do it. And this is where HR can really be helpful. It’s their job to do this kind of thing, and to do it thoughtfully.   

Done the right way, it’s a win for everyone involved!