Your tech career: How to cope with an unsupportive boss

IT managers are often skilled computer experts, a trait any techie can respect. But when it comes to managing people and advancing their employees' career goals, many fall flat.

Is it possible to get ahead when your boss is unwilling or unable to support your ambitions? Sure, says Eric P. Bloom, if you're willing to take some initiative.

Bloom, who has held senior executive positions at companies such as Monster Worldwide, Independence Investments and Fidelity Investments, tells the story of a quality assurance worker at one of his former companies who wanted to move into programming.

Her manager wasn't strong on team development, so the QA staffer took matters into her own hands. She learned .Net, and then when her team found bugs in new programs, she could help coordinate fixes with the programmers.

In the process, she became a valuable asset in the eyes of both her own manager and the person who managed the programming team. By successfully bridging the two departments, Bloom says, the QA staffer was able to move into the programming job she had wanted.

Bloom, now the president and founder of Manager Mechanics LLC, a management training firm in Ashland, Mass., says many bosses in IT aren't strong on mentoring and team-building. They often received promotions themselves because they were technically strong, and not necessarily because they had strong people skills or instinctive leadership qualities.

All of which means you might find yourself with a boss who's a nice person but isn't well equipped to help you advocate for career advancement.

The good news: Unless you're truly in a dead-end job, it is possible to get in on those big projects, get yourself noticed and ultimately get a promotion without ticking off your manager in the process. Here are five strategies to help you get ahead when your boss isn't on board.

Be clear on what you offer

Most people aren't very good at articulating what value they bring to the workplace, says Michael Ehling, a Toronto-based executive coach with The McNeill Group of Plantation, Fla. They're too vague on what they offer and what talents they have, often underestimating their value in the process.

So before you begin your campaign for advancement, take some time to think about your passions and motivations as well as your needs at work, he says. You might find you're passionate about solving problems, but you also want to work with cutting-edge technology.

"When you define those [strengths], then you can look out to your peers and boss and ask, 'What are your needs and how can I apply my value to help you?'" Ehling says. "Being seen as helpful is going to get you projects and promotions. And in no way will you be seen as going around, over or behind your boss, because all you're doing is serving needs."

Ask for what you want

Even if your manager hasn't been supportive so far, you should still sit down for a face-to-face chat, says Thuy Sindell, vice president of client services at Mariposa Leadership Inc., a San Francisco-based leadership coaching service, and co-author of The End of Work As You Know It: 8 Strategies to Redefine Work On Your Own Terms.

"Let him know that you need him to be more of an advocate," says Sindell. But -- and this is a big but -- don't start and end the conversation there. "It's got to be framed in the positive, in the form of a request," she explains. "Then you have to ask, 'Is there anything I've been doing that has prevented you from being an advocate for me?' because there could be a whole laundry list."

Be ready to listen to what your boss needs from you, and be ready to articulate what you can do for him and how your skills can help the organization. Your boss is more likely to be your advocate if you can consistently deliver what's needed.

Commit to your boss's success

It may sound counterintuitive if you're saddled with a sad-sack manager, but if you want to succeed, first make sure your boss does, says Ehling.

He says that workers should set their minds on being "100% committed to the boss's success," which he acknowledges can be a difficult task if you believe your boss makes mistakes. If you're committed to her success, however, then it becomes part of your job to point out land mines to her -- be they political ramifications or vendor problems or a technical glitch -- and offer possible ways around them.

Once you've made that commitment, the next step is to figure out what will make your boss successful. Find out what her personal and organizational goals are. Ehling suggests meeting with your boss to ask about those goals and to let her know you're committed to helping her get those organizational and personal wins.

Make connections

If you build relationships throughout your organization, you'll be better positioned to be considered for opportunities or open positions, says Kimberly Douglas, president of FireFly Facilitation Inc. in Atlanta and author of The FireFly Effect: Build Teams That Capture Creativity and Catapult Results.

"Take a pay-it-forward mentality. Make this about contributing to the organization's success," Douglas says.

Don't start by looking out for your best interests, but rather, set out to learn more about others in the organization, she explains. Get together for lunch with someone you've met but don't know well. Think of a person you hear mentioned around the office who you'd like to meet, then find a mutual connection to make the introduction.

It helps to have a real reason to connect, rather than a generic "let's get together," Douglas advises. If you'll be working with a new team to implement a new system, for example, ask to meet with the team leader in advance to learn more about what she does and what she wants to achieve with the system.

Or seek out the colleague who was recently certified in a new tech specialty or just returned from a big IT conference. Plan lunches with colleagues and managers in the business departments that your team works with frequently.

Because the best conversations are two-way, be ready to listen and to talk about yourself -- about what you do, what you offer, and how you can help, Douglas adds. As you build these types of relationships, you'll likely find that colleagues will think of you when a high-profile project rolls around or a job opens up.

"It's building that internal network and being your own advocate, because no one is going to network for you," Sindell says. "And you won't have to be too concerned about stepping on your boss's toes because you're being requested by others."

Do the job you eventually want

If you want to get noticed, then go ahead and demonstrate what you've got, says Von Wright, an Atlanta-based marketing vice president at AT&T Inc. "You have to do the job you want to be doing, and you have to start doing it today," he says.

For example, if you're a senior manager in a technology role but you want to lead business teams that define strategy, be the one on your current projects who translates business metrics into solutions.

Of course, you won't have a new title or an official promotion -- yet -- and you'll have to continue to fulfill all your existing obligations perfectly. But you'll be using skills that will be essential to the position you want to hold someday, Wright says.

"You never want to miss the opportunity to demonstrate your skills in front of leaders who aren't necessarily your boss," he says, adding that he himself used the strategy to move into his current job from his past position as vice president of IT strategy, planning and business integration.

Keep the faith

In short, Wright and other career experts advise you to act like the employee you're ready to become. If your boss is not supportive of your efforts, have faith that someone else will be. "Any good leader is always looking for the right people," Wright says. "And any good leader, when exposed to people who have the right qualities, will start working to get that individual on the team."

Dead-end job?

Here's how to tell

All your efforts to work around an inattentive boss won't help much if you're stuck in a truly dead-end job. How do you know when it's time to bail? Career experts say these are a few signs that it's time to move on:

* Your boss blames you. "That's a very clear sign that he's not your advocate," says leadership development coach Thuy Sindell.

* Your office feels like high school all over again. Lots of workers and bosses don't get along, but if the situation seems juvenile -- if there's an excess of gossiping, catty behavior or backstabbing -- it will be hard for you to succeed.

* There's nowhere to go. There's no sense in getting your boss to be an advocate, points out Kimberly Douglas, president of FireFly Facilitation Inc., if there are no possible promotions or new skills to learn.

* Your boss isn't respected by other executives. If your boss isn't aligned with the company's goals and faces being fired, you might end up being collateral damage.

* The company doesn't perceive IT as an equal business partner. A company that doesn't value its IT department won't be investing in technology or staff, says Eric P. Bloom, president and founder of management training firm Manager Mechanics LLC, and you'll likely find your skills becoming obsolete if you stick around.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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