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I’m employed at a smallish company and my boss is one of the directors. One thing right off the bat: My boss is a truly fantastic boss. Understanding, smart, full of good ideas, and a great mentor … when I can get in touch with him. We work in offices on opposite sides of the country, so the best way to communicate is via inter-office chat or the phone. I’ll send him a message to which he’ll respond 12 hours later or just not respond at all. We used to have fairly regular one-on-one meetings, which turned into biweekly meetings, and now he barely keeps those. The meeting will be rescheduled multiple times in the week that we do have it — at which point it will finally end up being on a Friday at 5 p.m. At that point, I will have built up enough of a backlog of “topics to discuss” that we’ll go over time or he’ll be interrupted and have to drop the call for something else. I try to schedule a time to chat, but he never has a free minute.
I know that he is very busy — lots of meetings, lots of travel. I’ve learned to find the answers to most of my important questions elsewhere or to plumb my network of resources for help if I need it. Sometimes, though, I do need guidance from my direct chain of command, and in those moments it’s radio silence. Perhaps I should take it as a sign that he doesn’t think that I need all that much guidance, but the lack of feedback is starting to wear on me. As I’ve taken on more and more responsibility and am trying to spin many plates at the same time, I would like to be sure that I’m going in the right direction. It’s frustrating to feel like I’m on an island by myself, especially when I can see that he’s actively answering other people and having (on time) one-on-one meetings with other team members.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Am I expecting too much from my manager given that he’s so busy? Is there a better way for me to tailor my communication to get the most out of the time that I do get with my boss? Should I just suck it up and learn to forever find my own answers?
Have you talked to your boss about the problem? If not, that’s the place to start since he may have no idea that it’s an issue for you.
Often in this situation, people assume that the manager is well aware of how inaccessible they are and that therefore there must not be anything that can be done about it. But in a lot of cases, the manager genuinely doesn’t realize that the staff person needs more access and pointing it out will often get you solutions. Not always, of course — some managers are too scattered or overwhelmed to fix it — but often enough that it’s worth talking about it. (This is the same thing I see happen all the time when it comes to overly high workloads, as well. People assume that if their boss is assigning them a ton of work, there’s no point in speaking up because they must be expected to find a way to get it all done, when in fact the boss is assuming they’ll speak up if it becomes a problem. So the boss goes on thinking everything is fine while the employee is stewing and feeling overwhelmed.)
In your case, it sounds like one thing that would really help is re-committing to weekly one-on-one meetings and not letting them keep getting pushed back. Since your boss is having those meetings with other people, it’s clearly something he’s willing to do, so my bet is that he doesn’t think you need them and that they’ve felt like an easy thing to cut out of his busy schedule. But if you tell him explicitly that those meetings feel crucial to your work and you want to resume them, that might be all it takes to get them happening again.
You could say something like this: “I found it really helpful when we had regular weekly meetings in the past. We’ve stopped doing them as frequently, and when we do them, it’s often at the very end of the week and we run out of time to cover everything. I often run into situations where I need your feedback, and it can be tough to wait as long as we’ve been waiting. Would you be open to meeting weekly again, and trying to do those meetings at a regular time that we can both plan around?”
You could also ask something like this: “Is there a better way for me to get ahold of you when you’re busy and I need something that shouldn’t wait until our one-on-one? Typically I’ve tried messaging or calling, but I know you’re busy and can’t always respond right away. When something’s time-sensitive, what’s the best way for me to get ahold of you?”
Or there’s the bigger-picture approach to all of this: “You’ve given me a lot of independence and autonomy, which is great. But sometimes I need more access to you than I can easily get, and I’d love to get more feedback and input from you.” And then, from there, you can go into the two requests above.
Beyond that, take a look at things that you might be able to alter yourself. For example, you mentioned it sometimes takes your boss 12 hours to respond to a message. That’s actually not a terribly long response time, especially for a busy manager, so this might be a spot where you should just readjust your expectations. But if some of those messages are more time-sensitive than that, are you sure he knows that? An email with the subject line “TIME-SENSITIVE: urgent client issue” is going to get attention faster than the subject line “client update” will.
You can also look at whether you’re making it as easy as possible for him to send you quick replies. A message that says, “Can we talk about what to do about X?” will require more time for him to answer (and thus might be put aside for later) than “Here’s the situation with X. I propose doing Y. Sound right to you?” And make sure, too, that you’re being as brief as possible and asking your questions right upfront so he doesn’t have to wade through a long message to find what you need.
You also said that there are times when he doesn’t respond at all. Go back and look at some of those messages that didn’t get responses. Was it clear what you were asking, and was it clear that it was time-sensitive and not something he reasonably could have assumed could wait for the next time you talked? Even saying upfront “I’m hoping to hear back from you today because I need to get back to Jane in the morning” can be the difference between an email that gets answered and one that gets set aside as lower-priority and then forgotten.
Ultimately, though, talk to your boss about what’s going on. Based on what you’ve said about him, he’s a good boss who will be receptive to hearing this and trying to remedy it — he just needs you to tell him that it’s a problem.
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