What Is Your Boss Really Looking For (And Thinking)?

We all have bosses. For many employees, that means one deceivingly simple question generates a great deal of thought: what is my boss thinking?

After a high-energy lunchtime session, Next Generation of Government participants attending one of the breakout sessions had the opportunity to tackle this question and learn how its answer can help guide your actions at work.

Following a dynamic conversation with the panelists, attendees were left with six takeaways providing insight into the mind of a boss.

1. See things how your boss sees them

Dave Uejio, president of Young Government Leaders and lead for talent acquisition at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, offered the analogy of a Google Map as a tool to understand the perspective of your boss. You can see a lot of detail on the ground using street view, but as you rise higher and higher in the office, you can pull back and see the whole city. If you can understand where your boss is coming from, you can understand what he or she needs from you on the ground as part of the bigger picture.

2. Be creative

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said understanding the vision is the first step to allowing for creativity on the job. An ideal employee is one who can clearly understand the mission of his or her position and the organization as a whole and doesn’t simply follow the mission blindly but instead lives up to it by adding his or her own creativity and thoughts.

3. Communication is key

Barbara Pabotoy, associate chief of human capital officer at the Department of the Treasury, said your boss needs to hear your concerns about the job in order to assist you in fulfilling your piece of the mission. Pabotoy acknowledged that passion for the mission doesn’t necessarily mean clarity about the mission. Help your boss bridge this gap by making your own ambiguity about the job and your own barriers to job success clear so you can work together to fulfill the mission.

4. Be passionate

Fauci said as a boss he is looking for people who have a desire to get the job done, not necessarily to get promoted. Fauci said promotion is a result of an effort to and a passion for getting the job done well. Melanie Stinnett, deputy chief counsel at ATF, echoed Fauci’s point, saying that passionate employees willing to take initiative are the people who catch her eye. Be passionate about your job performance, not about using the job as a stepping stone.

5. Do your research before disagreeing

Make sure you understand your boss’ position before disagreeing with him or her. Don’t communicate your feelings in a disgruntled manner, and choose your venue for the conversation carefully. Language is powerful, Pabototy said – be respectful. Fauci said if you are prepared with a reason why you disagree and offer an alternative approach, the conversation will have a greater chance of being beneficial for both parties.

6. Listen to your gut

Pabotoy and Fauci addressed the question of when to move on from a specific position by encouraging attendees to listen to their own thoughts and emotions. If a position is not for you, you’ll know. If your gut is telling you to move on, don’t overlook lateral opportunities elsewhere. Uejio said it is beneficial at times to step away from the pursuit of climbing the career ladder and instead look to move laterally. Stinnett said in order to make a move successfully, you need to know your abilities and look for where those abilities will be a good fit.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

“Passion for the mission doesn’t necessarily mean clarity about the mission.” – That’s a great point….and I think it ties into #1. One of the best ways to get clarity on the mission is asking your boss to articulate the reality of the organization from his/her vantage point – what are the strategic level decisions that are being considered and how you can contribute to their achievement. That ties into your point about being passionate, too – that you aren’t seeking that knowledge / perspective from your boss for the sake of getting a higher level job, but simply to be able to excel in your current position.

Elizabeth Fischer Laurie

I think the statement “Be passionate about your job performance, not about using the job as a stepping stone.” is a great reminder for everyone. It is easy to get caught up in the business of planning your next career move. It is important to focus on the job you have right now and do the best work you can. Great post Kara!

Kara Dunford

Thank for your comments, Elizabeth and Andy! This session included an engaging conversation around the points you highlighted – interesting to hear things from the boss’ perspective.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Two cents because this is such an important topic and post Kara.

I can tell you what I have heard, observed and experienced directly.

1. See things from boss’s point of view – yes! You don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid but try to understand their perspective on things.

2. Communication – yes, qualified. Boss wants to know where you are getting stuck. Boss wants status of project. Boss especially wants to know about crises and how you are managing them.

3. Passionate – not so much. Boss does not need your passion so much as your absolute motivation and engagement to deliver results against what THEY are passionate about.

4. The stepping stone issue – I take it for granted that any employee is looking to advance and so the key is for employees to align their ambitions with the boss’ success. For example of you want to be chief editor of the magazine, show how you can get the writing team organized without exercising direct authority. Boss will be happy to let you take on that responsibility – one less thing to worry about – feather in your cap.

To add a couple:

1. Leave your ego at home.

The boss is the boss. You should never try to undermine them or steal the limelight.

2. Stay positive even in bad times.

Joel Osteen gave a great sermon today about the woman who said “all is well” even though her son was dead. She was speaking in faith. She believed that G-d could resuscitate him. Believe that the workplace can be revived. Don’t spread negativity.

3. Say the magic words: “Will do.”

I have an amazing intern this summer. She won me over the first day by saying these words no matter what I asked her to do. Saying “will do” shows that you are a loyal soldier. Be a loyal soldier to your boss and they will help you further your own career down the road, by mentoring you, inviting you to meetings and to join projects, and giving you that critical reference letter.