Dear Career Couch,
So, I have this problem at work that might make me sound a little high and mighty, but here goes:
I’m smarter than my boss.
I work in the financial planning & analysis department of a pretty big company. When I started almost a year ago I looked up to my boss because he knew the ropes, and then it didn’t take me long to figure out what reports were due by when and how to create them. Now I’m increasingly frustrated because I have ideas on how we can do things more efficiently, and he doesn’t seem to want to listen. He’s a super nice guy– we get along really well– so I don’t think it’s personal. He just seems closed to new ideas.
I’ve sat with him and asked about our strategy for the rest of the year, and he seems really uncomfortable with conversations about anything other than whether the same old stuff is done by the same old times. I know I could make a difference if a few of my ideas were put to good use, like a new process for setting budgets (because ours is archaic and broken right now), and a totally revamped communication strategy (because right now the plan is to hear about things about a week too late). If I don’t get to start making a difference I’m going to have to make a move, and I don’t want to because the company is cool and like I said, I do like my boss as a person. What should I do?
Dear Smart + Strategic Subordinate,
I have so many thoughts and feelings about your question, the first one of which is empathy. I empathize with you, because it must be mind-blowingly frustrating to have ideas! and answers! that consistently reach dead end after dead end. I also empathize with your boss, because he’s got a thoroughbred on his team, and he clearly doesn’t know what to do with it (you).
For the sake of putting yourself in his shoes, to really embrace the empathy thing, it’s possible he’s terrified by you and scared of change. Your superior ability might trigger insecurities about his job or how people perceive him amidst this keen grasshopper on his heels, and your ideas might rock the world he’s used to (and maybe even the one he created). He could be checked out and wanting to coast until retirement or not totally buying your ideas (don’t rule our that they might not be fully sound). He could be lacking strategic skills or truly dim-witted.
So what does that list do for you? Empathy can alleviate some of your frustration, but more importantly an understanding of what makes your boss tick might help you craft your next steps. I’m actually thinking your initial question about being smarter than your boss might not hit on the real issue, which might have more to do with your frustration around not being able to make a difference.
- Make a list of what really matters to you. From your question it sounds like you value making an impact, having things be done right, efficiency and productivity, constant improvement, innovation, and good relationships. What else matters? Is growth and development important? Is recognition for your ideas?
- Accept that you can’t change your boss. Your job is to be amazing within the circumstances you’re in, while creatively trying ways to work the problem. Your boss might be brilliant, but just at really different things, like repeatedly executing a plan with focus and precision. You seem wired to develop the plans, which is different from how your boss operates. Who is right? Who is smarter?
- Figure out what you really want. Consider your list of values and put them in ranked order of importance. What do you want most? Is it to have your ideas actually implemented? To be seen as capable? To learn more? Etc.
- Have a real conversation with your boss. Let him know that you have many ideas that can make both of your lives better/easier/whatever, and that you’d like his advice and help regarding next steps. Be honest and refer to the things that matter most to you at work, and elicit his help to get there.
- Create a development plan. Identify high-value goals that will make your company better, and ask your boss to sign off on the plan (ideally after his input). Painting a clear picture for your boss regarding the what, when, and how might increase his buy-in.
- Find a mentor (inside your company or out) to keep you growing and fostering your ideas. This person can also give you feedback on the quality of your ideas.
- Find a sponsor and a champion for you and your ideas in meetings above your level. Network internally with people in different departments and build influence for your ideas (being careful to never step on your boss’s toes).
- Set an expiration date for this mission. If identifying what you want and need, talking with your boss, creating a plan, getting a mentor, building influence and just being a great guy in general isn’t making a difference by x date, it’s time to plan a different kind of strategy. That should be right up your alley, should you need it.