Monday, April 28, 2008

Boss Checklist: When Considering Your Next Foreign Service Assignment

A conversation this past weekend made me think about prospective bosses during assignment time and how little employees usually know about them. Unless you're plugged exceptionally well into the system, you won't really know what that next boss is like until you're at post. Your interest on boss-matters also largely depends on where you are in your career. Early on, with the excitement of going to one’s first assignment, there is that sense of great adventure and invincibility; later in one’s career after having earned a bit of wisdom and experience, one tends to be more adroit in asking specific questions about the person who will “own” you for a couple or so years.

It goes without saying that even if you're lucky to have a great boss during your tour, it is within the realm of possibility that the boss rotates out in the middle of your tour and is replaced by somebody who’s well, a train wreck, and you’d still spend part of your tour in a junkyard of sorts. There are only so many things we can control in this kind of life, of course, but having an “early warning system,” at least prepares us for it. The old “What’s the boss like?” question is often too generalized to be useful. So I’ve come up with a checklist that would help tell if the prospective boss is a, uh, jerk.

( ) Speedway Boss

Is the prospective boss perceived as focused on the current job or searching for the next big gig? The boss who is in a race to get ahead has limited patience in growing his/her people. This boss expects you to figure out everything for yourself – how to jump off planes without parachutes, or swim the great oceans from day one (zero consideration even if you come from a landlocked country) – you’ve got to figure it all out for yourself because he/she does not have time for coaching or mentoring; too busy to make pit stops while getting to the next job.

( ) Employees’ Reference

What do past employees say about working for the prospective boss? Would they want to work with him/her again? This is an excellent question to ask because in the small universe of the FS, you tend to bump on the same people throughout the span of your entire career. The desire to keep relationships on an even keel has its many returns especially when you consider possible future posts. So when past officers say they won’t work for this boss again, that means it must have been truly memorable.

( ) Silent Signals

How do local employees interact with the prospective boss? Is he/she well-liked and respected that they find ways to engage, put extra efforts, share laughs, find excuses to celebrate at work or do they circumnavigate the office to get somewhere without passing by his/her office? Do they call in sick rather than have one-on-one meetings with the boss or get a stomachache rather than attend the boss’ birthday party? The locals have seen us come and go; they have seen the great, the good, the bad and the ugly, and they usually know more than they let on. Their silent signals are pretty much a guide post, it's worth paying attention before you bumped on it head-on.

( ) Tolerance Factor

How does the prospective boss react to mistakes and bad news? Does he/she suffers from the “shoot-the- messenger” syndrome or is he/she the kind that perceives mistakes as opportunities for learning. The boss whose office is littered with empty shells sinks sooner than later (no matter how tightly the ship is run) because the crew is often too afraid to report when there’s a hole in the stern. Beware, unless you’re a great swimmer!

( ) Dissenting Chair

How receptive is the prospective boss to criticisms and dissenting views? Does prospective boss encourage a diversity of ideas and give people with contrary views a seat in the table to understand all the issues or does he/she marginalized the people and ignore dissenting views? The boss intolerant to dissent is often proud of running a tight ship because, well, see - nobody sneezes without asking for permission first. (Note: Don’t get tempted even if post looks like paradise; remember that paradise can be hell if you work for a lout).

( ) Screaming Red Flag

Were there “nuggets of wisdom” that past employees passed around among themselves on how to deal with prospective boss? “Let the boss think your idea is really her own, she likes that.” Or “He does not like to be contradicted, so don't say anything; let him do the talking.” Or “She has an unbelievable photographic memory when it comes to mistakes.” The fact that the staff has developed informal guidelines in dealing with the boss is a screaming red flag that you should not ignore. As I write this item, I am reminded how parents sometimes exchange tips on what to do to avoid toddler meltdown. Kinda similar.

( ) A Sheep or Two

Does the prospective boss surround self with sheep? Are there a few employees who act as gatekeepers, confidants or friends to the exclusion of the larger group? Note that the shepherd boss tends to listen only to a few individuals tested for their loyalty. Employees who rat out on their co-workers to earn brownie points and follow the boss without question qualify as sheep. What’s wrong with being a sheep you might ask? Nothing - as long as you don’t care what boss feeds you with.

( ) Information Superhighway Filter

How does the prospective boss manage communication? Does the boss tend to hoard information to control the message (or for one-upmanship) or are communication lines open and straightforward? A lousy boss tends to impose a circuitous communication structure when dealing with the outside world and routes everything through his/her desk. This one acts as the information superhighway filter and as a consequence, is also quite adept at managing impression. Bottom line – you usually won’t see smoke even if boss is causing deadly havoc within the organization (survivors of course, are branded for life).

( ) Team of One

Does the prospective boss hug the limelight during work successes or does he/she shine the light on to his/her team? The boss who is in a team of one usually has little interest in the process, or the journey but focused solely on the results and the destination. Any project or initiative takes on a fixed deadline to ensure that the boss gets his/her brownie points in time for the EER or the bid cycle. Overworked and under appreciated, people working for this boss usually feel the blues once on Monday and twice on any given workday.

( ) Kiss and Kick Intelligence (KKQ)

How does the boss respond to feedback from people higher in rank and lower in rank? Bob Sutton and Guy Kawasaki called this the “kisses-up, kicks-down” item in their checklist. They described this as follows: the One characteristic of certified assholes is that they tend to demean those who are less powerful while brown-nosing their superiors. Oh golly, that’s blunt, need I say more? Do check out the Sutton-Kawasaki-LinkedIn checklist.

This is not to say that we do not have good managers at State, we do but - as in the larger world out there, we also have those that manifest part or all of the items in this checklist. And what bugs me is that they get rewarded with better assignments anyway, and some are politically savvy enough that they could even end up in the SFS.

In any case, perhaps nobody really needs a checklist like this except me (type A personality and all that). After all, one great thing about the FS is we move every couple or so years, which means, nobody get struck with a lousy boss forever. If that fact does not cheer you up, you can always buy a reverse clock like this one that can count backwards from any date out to 2024 (just replace the photo with the correct one, okay?). We'll have to think of some other cheerful prop in 2025; though I'm a "glass is full" kind of person and hope that by then, we won't have to.

1 comment:

Jill said...

We (I mean my husband - though it affected both of us) had the WORST boss at our first post. He thought he was the bomb - and he was, though in a whole different meaning. It really made for a stressful tour.

The only positive that came of it is that my husband learned what not to do when he became a supervisor here.

You are not alone in seeking out info on your future boss. We asked about all the key players who we may be working with - they played a key role in deciding what would go on our list.

Good luck! The FS is a small world. Our old neighbors at our last post just happened to be our neighbors here - and we're moving near another set of old neighbors from our first post at our next one too!