How to get ahead even when you don’t have the support of your boss

Oct 25, 2018

A sponsor can be invaluable in helping you achieve your career goals and getting ahead in an organisation.

The first place most of us look for support is our immediate boss, the person who is closest to our work.

A good advocate offers advice and mentorship while also shining a light on our potential revealing capabilities that we may not know we have.

We borrow an advocate’s confidence in us until we adopt it completely ourselves.

One wahine I coach recounted a story of how her boss had shocked her by suggesting her for a job before she was ready. She took it, and with her boss’s close guidance, learned as she went.

Advocates also serve as role models allowing us to see how we can accomplish what they’ve done.

In my experience, having a career-supporting advocate is an uncommon find in our direct managers.

Supervisors and team leaders too often lack people development skills or organisational influence.

Or they are too protective of their own status to risk elevating someone else.

So what should you do if you’re not one of the lucky ones with a powerful boss who supports you?

Here’s some advice for you to follow:

  1. Create an advocacy team

Instead of having one person in your corner, consider putting together a team of people who can help you advance your career.

Think broadly across levels and functions, both inside and outside your organisation.

Look for people whose careers are further along than yours and whose style or achievements you admire.

Write the qualities you want to develop and match them with a list of people who exhibit them.

One way of approaching a potential advocate is to ask for advice.

Asking for advice makes people seem more credible.

Furthermore, when people provide advice they become invested in it, and therefore in you.

This doesn’t have to be formal, and in fact, your advocates may not ever know that’s how you view them.

Being forced to assemble a group of advisers rather than having one great boss can be an advantage.

If you’re too dependent on one person, you might fail to establish a resilient network and end up in the corporate hole if your boss leaves the company.

What's more, while having your brand tied to one leader is an asset when that leader is rising and shining, if the leader falls out of favour, that closeness can create a reputational hit.

  1. Prioritise visibility

If you don’t have a boss that is willing to put you in front of stakeholders, you need to find your own platform.

Look for cross-functional or internal projects that will involve or be debriefed to stakeholders.

If one doesn’t exist, propose a project that aligns with the corporate values or vision or that solves a stated need.

For example, a client of mine volunteered to start a diversity and inclusion working group to determine why the company wasn’t attracting diverse talent above the manager level, despite its a stated corporate priority. She used her leadership and strategic skills to drive the process and presented the team’s findings to the executive team. The CEO created a diversity role and promoted her to it.

  1. Find the influencers and offer to help

In every organisation, there are centers of influence, some of which may not map to positional power.

Think, for example, of the influence of a strategic adviser who retires from the executive team, or the CEO’s executive assistant.

Determine who the influencers are in your work and make yourself helpful to them.

Look at what you can offer them rather than just what they can give you.

Contribute to their efforts without expecting a short-term return.

Trust in the long-term benefit of the relationship.

Being a giver is often far more beneficial and effective than being just a taker.

  1. Use positive outside pressure. 

Building your status outside the organisation can often gain you visibility inside it.

Corporate leaders notice who is visible to customers, stakeholders, and the broader industry.

Professionals at any level can build a solid platform that has a greater reach than their position might indicate.

Choose a way to do this that is genuinely interesting to you.

You might decide to join an industry association and work toward holding a leadership position there.

You can build a following on social media by demonstrating expertise and engaging with known thinkers in your field.

Ask how you can best assist them in their goals, and follow up on what they suggest.

Bringing ideas around your interests and expertise — and continually providing interesting topics — can make you a go-to resource.

Imagine a customer telling your leadership that one of the reasons they selected your company was because of an article you wrote about industry trends.

It’s hard for even the best internal recognition to match external validation.

If you have the option, there’s no question that finding a supportive boss with influence is a direct benefit to your career.

But even that may not be enough.

Companies are dynamic, and having other ways to advocate for yourself — or having others do it — is a more sustainable approach.

Building a range of supporters who can help you grow in diverse ways may be the best advantage you can have to boss up!

Love to hear your thoughts.

Noho ora mai, nā


P.S. Register for the 3rd iWahine Leadership Hui so you can meet new people and re-connect with old friends. Who knows you may even find people to include in your advocacy team and at the same time build your visibility and status inside and outside of your organisation and profession. The Super Saver Rate closes tomorrow so REGISTER NOW!


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