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Forecasting Compatibility: How to Select Your New Boss

I know that selecting a new boss is the farthest thing from the minds of many readers of the Next Wave. You may still be in a graduate program, concerned about your ability to find a job at all, let alone choosing one with a boss whom you might do well with. But I believe that thinking about this now is not only smart, it is something that should be considered at any time a career transition is pending. Many of the ideas that follow would apply equally well to selecting a graduate adviser or postdoctoral position as they would for my stated purpose -- to assist in determining whether your possible new boss in an industrial position would be compatible with your personal work style and needs.

The Compounding Problem of Selecting the Wrong Boss

On a regular basis, I will look at a resume or CV and see a progression of jobs in 2- or 3-year stays. In the biotechnology industry, my personal focus, there is no shortage of career turbulence when smaller companies or start-ups go away or are acquired. Hence, a 3-year stay in a biotech company doesn't necessarily point to a problem. However, where there are a number of such shorter stays -- including those in larger, more stable organizations -- this points to a problem. Often the problem is the person, but many times at issue is a series of bad bosses:

"I'm the kind of individual who needs to focus on fine-tuning my skills in the lab, and I haven't been given the chance to do this as frequently as I would like. My expertise has long been in certain techniques and methodology, all of which are very important to the manufacturing element in my employers," Phil stated. "This has meant that I continue to be pulled into an area which really isn't my great love." A superb analytical biochemist, Phil was the kind of person who I knew could excel in a company where his supervisor would appreciate his working style and need to spend a significant time doing creative work at the bench. An appreciation of Phil's work style was something that had eluded his last two supervisors.

"Lately, in discussions with managers and human resources people, I find myself being labeled as a problem employee. My accomplishments are overlooked in favor of questions about how and why I left a particular company. I think that I need to change something in my interviewing style, perhaps to refocus on my accomplishments and move away from discussions about the relationships I've had over the years with my bosses." Phil was overanalyzing his interviewing style, something that any technical professional will do when the job search extends beyond what they consider to be a reasonable period of time.

In actuality, Phil's blunder wasn't in his interviewing style -- it was in his inability to choose someone compatible to work with. Phil needed to do more analysis when selecting his next boss.

The Four Areas Where Stress Can Occur Between You and Your Boss

In the excellent book Sacked! Why Good People Get Fired and How To Avoid It, author Richard Gould describes four areas where incompatibility can exist between boss and subordinate. These four areas involve specific ways in which you get your job done and the way that you communicate to others.

The Way You Approach Your Work

This aspect of your relationship with the boss refers to the differences in the way that people plan and organize tasks -- the way that they get the job done. For example, Phil's most recent boss is the kind of fellow who has a "seat of the pants" approach. Lots of intuition, last minute changes of plan, and he has always believed that it was his job to be right down in the thick of things with his shirt sleeves rolled up. Phil, on the other hand, prefers to plan projects in detail right from the very beginning. His roots as a scientist taught him to gather data and to follow a process.

Cautious planners such as Phil and free-and-easy "fast movers" such as his boss are natural antagonists. As a headhunter, matching two people like this would be something of a major faux pas -- unless both people were very forgiving and committed to making the relationship work.

A good question to ask of a prospective boss: "What kind of project planning tools do you use?"

How You Think Through Problems

This refers to the way that different people seek, sort, and then process information. Some people, like Phil's boss, need to be totally immersed in a situation, constantly absorbing so that they can react as they feel necessary. Solutions tend to come at them in the form of images, as opposed to cold, hard facts.

Phil was the kind of employee who would thrive on problem solving, but in a much more deliberate and careful manner than his boss. While his supervisor would be perfectly happy with some impromptu solution, Phil would prefer to get it all down on paper and to make a logical recommendation as the result of his clear statement of the problem.

A good question, which might illuminate this area: "Can you tell me about some of the interesting problems that your people have been asked to solve?"

How You Arrive at Decisions

What tolerance do you have for risk? What flexibility do you have for dealing with change? Two people can reach the same final decision and yet still not work well together because they arrive at their positions in different ways. Phil's habit of sitting down to do an analysis would drive his supervisor up the wall. Similarly, the wild and crazy snap decisions that his boss was known for would aggravate Phil, even though quite often their decision was exactly the same.

The actual speed of decision making tends to have a great deal to do with creating antagonists. Phil saw his boss as an impulsive decision-maker, while his supervisor repeatedly cautioned him about his "decisiveness problems" at annual review time.

Good questions here would include: "Tell me about some of the people you've promoted in this department -- why the relationship works well and how you decided that they were worth developing."

How You Approach Other People

This is a communication issue that deals with flexibility and your talent at approaching others in a way that they would most like to be approached. Some people, Phil's supervisor included, know a lot about how different people communicate and they are capable of adapting their communication style to the individual. On the other hand, Phil would treat everyone he came into contact with in exactly the same manner. While Phil thought this was the sensible approach, many people he encountered in his work life didn't appreciate his particular style of communication.

Phil's boss once suggested to him that he observe the spirit of the Golden Rule rather than a literal translation. He was trying to tell Phil that it would be better for him to remember his boss's style of communication the next time he went in to discuss their work together. Adapting to his boss's style (fast-paced as opposed to the studied, scientific fashion that Phil was used to) would have improved his situation tremendously.

Questions to ask include: "Tell me about your management style and how you like your people to keep you updated on their work."

In Conclusion

Not everyone can secure a number of opportunities in order to select one that has the ideal boss. Job offers do not often come in threes and fours. However, even if you have a single job offer to consider and you are weighing this one against the anguish of three more months of job seeking, I can assure you that thinking about the boss-subordinate relationship before you make your decision will be valuable.

As you advance through your career, you'll find that whenever issues develop between you and your boss, the one who will take the burden of the blame will be you. As unfair as this might be, it is the reality of the job seeker.

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