One of my early articles for this publication was on Five Keys to Managing an Unpredictable Boss. The main point was that the five keys are the same as the five keys to managing any boss and culture: Behaviors, Relationships, Attitudes, Values, and Environment.
At the time, I asked, wouldn’t it be nice if management theory actually worked in practice? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could follow the tenets of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan to get your strategic, operating, and organizational processes in place and let them run without interruption? Wouldn’t it be nice if your boss had perfect leadership skills and gave you clear direction and then never changed their mind?
Welcome to the real world. The real world is messy. Things change. And we all must adapt to those changes on an ongoing basis.
Brilliant Bosses are Mercurial
The most brilliant entrepreneurs, leaders, and bosses change their minds. They pride themselves on zigging while others zag. They don’t care about the process. They are passionately focused on a vision. They are relentless in pursuing what’s important. They will change anything at any time, except their core values, to reach their end goal.
This is why people like Steve Jobs throw out less-than-perfect prototypes. This is why other brilliant entrepreneurs are sometimes hard to work with.
Interacting with a bunch of different entrepreneurs and the people working for them and doing better or worse in managing mercurial bosses led me to consider the five ways to manage an unpredictable or volatile boss.
Behave with integrity. What you do must match what you say and what you fundamentally believe. Integrity does not mean blind consistency. It’s fine for you to change direction in response to changing circumstances. You just have to let those following you know why. When your boss changes their mind based on something they or see that others don’t see, step in to explain that to others.
In a business setting, the relationship between a boss and a subordinate is of primary importance. If you’re working for a mercurial boss, you need to align the mode, manner, and frequency of your communication with what your boss prefers. And you need to disagree with them in the right way. Different people prefer being disagreed with in different ways, ranging from never to one-on-one in private, in small meetings, in public – politely to gloves off all the time. You cannot survive a mercurial boss without knowing how to do this, doing their job their way – and adapting as your boss changes.
You have to believe in your boss. Mercurial changes viewed through an attitude of belief and respect look very different than they do through an attitude of doubt. Choose the right attitude and approach.
Virtually every long-serving CEO agrees that the fundamental job of the CEO is to own the vision and the values. Got to have the vision. Got to move things towards that vision, whatever it takes – except for compromising your values. If you believe the end justifies the means, you will not be the same person when you get there.
Thus, if you have a mercurial boss, make sure your values are completely in line with theirs. If you share the same values, the tactical changes are far easier to handle.
Context counts. The physical environment makes a difference. The way you organize and decorate your offices makes a difference. The way you dress makes a difference.
One middle manager’s office is perfectly designed to make the people working for him respect him while, at the same time, never making his boss feel that the middle manager is trying to compete with him. This manager’s office, like the way he dresses, behaves, and relates to others, has found that happy middle way.
This still holds
The basic framework still works. Over the last decade, the screaming critical change is that more people are working remotely – away from the boss. While remote work is more efficient and perhaps even more effective for some individuals, it makes it really really hard to build, sustain and strengthen a culture – especially with a mercurial boss. Invest in face-to-face meetings. Be on the lookout for nuances you might miss – especially in times of change.