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Getting Out of Your Boss' Shadow



By : Gill Corkindale who is an executive coach and writer based in London, focusing on global management and leadership. She was formerly management editor of the Financial Times.


I am always reminding my clients of the importance of keeping their boss happy. I tell them to develop positive, supportive relationships with
their bosses, keep them well informed, anticipate their needs, and focus on the good points.

But this advice didn't work for a recent client, whom I'll call Claudia. A senior manager in a Spanish construction company, Claudia had been working with her current boss for 11 years. Each time her boss changed positions she found a senior role for Claudia. The two had developed an almost symbiotic relationship — but unfortunately for Claudia, it was also extremely dysfunctional.


"My boss is quite disorganised, emotional, and inconsistent. She has no personal life, so she is very focused on work, but she isn't very disciplined," Claudia told me. "That means long hours in the office, sorting out her last-minute crises, and generally supporting her emotionally. What's more, she doesn't promote me internally which means I'm working away in her shadow with very little credit."

When I asked Claudia why she had allowed this situation to go on for so long, she admitted that she was shy, so it had suited her to have a boss who looked after her and found her new roles. But she was beginning to feel like her career was going off track. Her boss was taking the credit for her hard work and good ideas, and she was uncomfortable having to spend increasing amounts of time — at work and outside — listening to her boss's personal problems.

So what was the real issue here? For Claudia, it was the fact that she felt psychologically trapped and overwhelmed by her boss. She was literally living in her boss's shadow: no one saw her as a separate person and she felt so disempowered that she couldn't even think about separating herself from her boss.

In front of me was a conscientious and talented young woman who should have been racing up the career ladder, but who appeared depressed, demotivated, and drained. Claudia was a shadow of the person she ought to have been.

I have come across different aspects of this situation before — the charismatic boss who eclipses his deputy, the toxic boss who blocks the progress of a talented junior, the awkward boss who just says no to every suggestion, the boss who takes all the credit, the political boss who charms her subordinates but holds them back to promote her own career, and the bully who keeps everyone in fear. The list goes on and on.
But this situation seemed more difficult to resolve. It seemed to me that the relationship between Claudia and her boss had become co-dependent: the needier and more disorganised her boss became, the more Claudia stepped up to the challenge of looking after her. The more she did this, the more exhausted and disillusioned she became, which left her downbeat and overlooked in the company.

It was time to change the picture. The action plan Claudia and I came up with may help you if you're in a similar situation:
*       Try to make the relationship more professional. Let your boss know that you have deadlines and appointments to keep.
*       Be aware of your boss's moods but try not to be drawn in and avoid talking about her personal problems — change the subject.
*       Try to coach your boss into becoming more organised: ask to see their schedule, goals, and objectives and work together to plan things more effectively.
*       Don't collude with your boss by picking up the pieces and covering for her — don't always agree to stay late if there is a crisis.
*       Ask your boss for feedback on how you are performing andrequest opportunities to present your work in front of senior managers.
*       Build up your network in the organisation — meet people for lunch, or drop by to ask how they are getting on. Let them know what you are doing and how you can help them. Ensure that they see you regularly and apart from your boss.
*       Think about your next career move and whom you need to approach to find out about other opportunities.
*       Recognise that you and your boss depend on each other but know the limits of that interdependence and when it is affecting you adversely. Start defining yourself clearly to your colleagues and stakeholders.
*       Make sure that you leave the office early at least once a weekand don't be available for work or personal calls at the weekend
*       Focus on people and activities outside work that boost your confidence and make you feel better about yourself.  
*       Remind yourself that if you don't act on the above, you will continue to fade away in the shadow of your demanding boss.
It is some months since Claudia put her action plan to work and there has been some improvement, but this is not an easy situation to resolve. Stepping away from someone who has been a big part of her life for more than a decade hasn't been easy and Claudia's boss has not responded well. "It's as if I am withdrawing her life support system," she said.




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