By Bill Smullen
Most everyone still working today either has a boss or is a boss. Either way, you should want the boss to be successful because when he or she succeeds everyone in the organisation benefits. Below, Bill Smullen shares years of experience working for people who needed and valued good advice. Finding that place and that space in a relationship between a senior and a subordinate takes hard work and a commitment to excellence. Whether at the entry, mid-career or senior executive level, here are some life lessons that can help you be more successful in the workplace.
Raised in a highly mobile work environment in which people rotated from one job to another every year to three years, I had many bosses in a 30-year military career. Some were good leaders, others not so good. They came with a variety of temperaments and management styles. Yet each person for whom I worked deserved my full commitment, loyalty and support.
As a junior U.S. Army officer, I simply saw the boss as my senior who commanded a subordinate’s respect and obedience. As I progressed in rank and position, I came to see the boss as someone whose image and reputation were critically important. They were reflections of the organisation and its employees.
Brands Must Be Built and Maintained
With time I came to realise that my bosses had a brand. You read the term brand all the time on the business pages or hear it on television when an individual or a company, even a product are being described. What is a brand? In the case of an individual or a company, it is not simply a name or title. It’s not what you say you are or think you are. A brand is what you do, how you do it and why. A product’s brand is the name, design, symbol or feature that identifies or distinguishes one product from another.
This is an era of perception relevance which defines how you are thought of in the marketplace. Investing well and wisely in your brand is critical so stakeholders will think well of you. Let them know what you’re good at, what distinguishes you from others and what you stand for. If your actions, your culture or your values are being questioned by those to whom you are responsible, you are in jeopardy.[ms-protect-content id=”9932″]
In this 21st century world, everything a person or an organisation does or fails to do with respect to their brand is transparent and obvious to their stakeholders. One must stay ahead of that wave of scrutiny or fall victim to the current. You can do that by having a solid mission, having a clear vision, and having core values that can be trusted.
I have been responsible for the reputations of prominent people like Colin Powell, and images of institutions like the U.S. Army, and first impressions of a start-up organisation like America’s Promise, which was created to help at-risk youth in America. Each was a brand that needed to be burnished with constant polishing so their image was bright. The success of any brand is not an entitlement; it has to be earned every day.
Working for bosses whose reputations were not so bright was also something I experienced during my service time. That did not discourage or deter me from trying to at least make the organisation look good by working as hard as I could to be successful on everyone’s behalf, most of all that of the boss.
Find a Seat at the Table
Being invited to help the boss be successful does not come naturally. It starts with gaining a seat at the table. The price of admission is gaining the experience and demonstrating superior performance. It is also building your credibility and having something useful to offer the boss. Well thought-out advice is a powerful tool. When the boss turns to you and asks what you think about an issue, it helps to arm him or her with information that has substance and value. On more than one occasion for me gaining that seat came in response to a crisis when my boss needed help working through a difficult time or important requirement.
As a major, I was assigned to the United States Military Academy as the media relations officer. While there I had responsibility to assist the West Point Superintendent explain his strategy for dealing with two delicate issues to stakeholders. Both were public relations nightmares. Accepting women into the Corps of Cadets in 1976 seems matter of fact today, but back then it meant a cultural transformation West Point had fiercely resisted. The law, enacted in 1975, changed that forever.
We launched a public relations campaign to attract that small universe of women at the time, who were interested in a four-year military education and a minimum five-year active duty Army commitment. Convincing critical stakeholders, not the least of whom were alumni and cadets set in their ways, was a daunting task.
In the midst of our admitting 119 women into that first class came a second public relations challenge – dealing with allegations that 220 cadets, all seniors, had cheated on an electrical engineering exam. Most were found to have violated the honor code that directs, “a cadet will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.”
As a chief spokesman for the military academy back then, I experienced a daily onslaught of reporters searching for what I termed a twofer – one story about how we were handling the admission of women, another story about how were dealing with the cheating scandal. It was not always a pretty print or broadcast news story. Many a day I was called to the office of the Superintendent, the late Lieutenant General Sidney B. Berry, to strategise with him over responses to the tough questions being asked and ways to keep the image of West Point strong.
Create a Comfort Zone
If anything, that experience prepared me well when six years later I was assigned to the Pentagon as a lieutenant colonel. My new boss, Major General Lyle Barker, greeted me with a new job he had created for me. He wanted me to provide public relations support for the Big Four, as they were called – the Secretary and Under Secretary of the Army and the Chief and Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.
As the four most senior Army leaders, both civilian and military, they were the faces and voices institutional stakeholders needed to see and hear from. My job was to get them out in the public eye more. Speeches, interviews, press conferences were the goals for them. Creating a comfort zone for them was the challenge for me. Simply asking the boss to be more active in telling their organisation’s story is the easy part. Preparing them to do so effectively is the more difficult part.
I decided to create what I called an Issues Book, a three-ring binder filled with the hot-button issues of the day, which the Army staff of experts updated whenever there was change. Whenever there was a scheduled public speech or press event for any one of my four bosses, I gave them the most recent version of the book the Friday beforehand so they could study it over the weekend. It worked as they became active and willing participants.
Actively Tell Your Story
Five years of doing this prepared me well for my next job. As the special assistant to the 11th and 12th chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr. and General Colin L. Powell, I encouraged both to tell the story of the Armed Forces of the United States as often as it was relevant and important. They did it in ways that routinely informed the American people and our international partners of what we were doing, how we were doing it and why.
When Admiral Crowe made his historic and unprecedented trip to the former Soviet Union, we took the late Mike Wallace of CBS “60 Minutes” and his camera crew with us for this 11-day adventure in the summer of 1989. Had we not taken what some considered a risk, not knowing how the trip would unfold, CBS would not have captured what we now know was the beginning of the thaw of the Cold War.
General Powell is by nature a cautious man who, upon succeeding Crowe in October 1989, was reluctant to accept the high degree of public visibility that I initially recommended of him. An operational crisis, the invasion of Panama in December 1989, provided me the opportunity to support his telling the worldwide public why we took down General Manual Noriega and his Panamanian Defense Force. Noriega had ordered physical altercations on U.S. military personnel and dependents stationed in the Republic of Panama. That could not stand.
Once Powell felt comfortable with the level of support I was providing him, he became more active publically. Every step of the way I gave him what he needed to be confident in telling the Defense Department’s story. The record speaks for itself: 408 sets of public remarks; 257 media events; in the aggregate 665 times in four years or about once every other day when he was advancing the cause of the U.S. Armed Forces. The general was routinely engaged in reaching out to stakeholder groups to gain and maintain public approval. Supporting the boss all the time, not just when a crisis occurs, is important to them and those publics they represent.
Provide a Moral Compass
Risk and crisis abound in the business world. Problems are inevitable in any organisation. Could be a management mistake or a leadership shortcoming. Could be poor business performance or a bad financial decision. Could be a fraudulent action or even a failing business endeavor. Whatever it is, it deserves immediate reaction to do something about what went wrong.
Once the seriousness of the problem has been identified and its impact assessed, formulate a strategy to reverse the dilemma. Administer thoughtful actions that can serve as a remedy. To help the boss be a strategic asset waiting to happen. Create a comfort zone so the boss is willing to be the face and voice of the organisation. Prepare him or her for the honest answers for what went wrong, how to fix it and why it won’t happen again.
Every problem needs a solution. Offer to contribute to one with your time and energy. Provide suggestions as to how to make things better. Help with useful strategic thinking and strategic planning that can lead to the invention of ideas for a fresh beginning.
The Latin word “gubernare,” which means to steer or guide, comes to mind when I think of helping the boss govern. Providing him or her that all-important moral compass and the proper azimuth to take the organisation in the right direction is an obligation each of us has. The value of doing so is that the boss is bound to be more successful. When that happens, you are apt to be more successful as well.
About the Author
Bill Smullen is Director of the National Security Studies Program and a Professor of Public Relations at Syracuse University. Prior to his appointment at Syracuse University, he was the Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell beginning in January 2001. A veteran of 30 years in the U.S. Army, his last assignment on active duty was Special Assistant to the eleventh and twelfth Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr., and General Colin L. Powell. Upon leaving active duty, he became the Executive Assistant to General Powell, assisting with the writing and promotion of his best-selling autobiography, “My American Journey.” Colonel Smullen has written his own book, titled “Ways and Means for Managing Up.” It is a book on how to be successful in the workplace.