Knowing which side is your bread buttered on

March 14, 2010

I’ve seen lots of people lose site of who the client/boss is. Whether it’s a consulting situation or merely your boss, it’s important to maintain focus on who it’s (relatively) most important to please. Particularly early in their career, professionals can get hung up on what’s “the right” thing  to do, presenting “the right” solution (as if there’s just the one) or naively misunderstanding what gets rewarded and punished. My point is not that idealism is wrong, but rather to keep perspective on priorities and understand “which side your bread is buttered on”.

(Caveat: There is a whole separate set of topics around this on “getting what you want” and “being politically astute”. For the sake of clarity, I am not talking about these things. We’ll focus both on pleasing the boss and understanding the consequences of not pleasing him/her. There are certainly times when we decide to do what we think is appropriate and that has consequences. That’s for another post.)

First, let’s be goal oriented. As reward seeking individuals, we want to do well. This can be defined financially (won another sale, increasing my pay), reputationally (I was praised publicly, increasing my social capital), emotionally (I did good work that was important, increasing my satisfaction) and in many other ways. To get any of these you need influential people to decide you did good work.

So what’s the pecking order of who we need to please? With clear exceptions and understanding that “it depends”, I would propose the following hierarchy:

Level 1 – Your boss. You MUST please your boss. Even if your boss is ineffectual and weak, if they don’t advocate for you you will have a hard time in reviews and salary discussion. Make your boss look good and you are well on your way to good reviews.

Note: I get that some bosses are crappy and treat you poorly. In this case you need to manage a move without pissing them off. Whether you like them or not, you don’t want to turn them into career terrorists for you. Also – getting a reputation as someone who can work with anyone is a plus.

Level 2 – Your boss’ boss and chain of command. Collectively, these executives will have a big influence over your fate and your work presumably directly affects their performance. You want them to A) definitely know who you are and B) have a positive impression. Generally speaking, they will be the ones who decide whether you get other opportunities, not your boss. This is usually because they have greater span of control and more influence.

Note: They have more power, but are second on the list because your boss will still be more immediately relevant in your review, compensation etc. If your boss kills you in a review, you’re dead.

Level 3 – Clients. This could be either internal or external.

I have them third because in any individual interaction, you need to understand your boss’ priorities as you evaluate and prioritize your activities. In the long term if you piss of your clients, you’ll have a short career. I am not saying clients are less important than your chain of command. Without clients, there is not business. What I am saying is that for an early/mid-career professional, never forget who’s in charge.  For example, sometimes you need to aggravate your client to meet a firm goal in the short term.

If you are a consultant working for a client or working cross-functionally on a team outside your department in a large organization, it’s important to understand several things clearly.

First, who is actually paying (or reviewing) you? Stated differently what budget line item is your fee coming from and who is the actual decision maker? Never confuse that with “who do we deal with the most” or “who is assigned as our liaison” etc. Understand where the buck stops.

Second, you need to understand their political position. Are they internally powerful? Are they internally weak? This matters because you want to be smart about navigating a client’s environment. Whether it’s being clever in support of your primary client and their agenda or not overplaying your support because you want to win future work and they aren’t in a position to buy, you need to understand the landscape.

Managing across levels. Sometimes you have to piss someone off. Be strategic and don’t always make it the same person/group. Spread the pain and make sure you “make good” at some other time.

I’ll give a few examples I have seen in my career:

  • Partner tells you to do something that doesn’t appear in your client’s interests.
  • Client staffer (but not your “paying” client) you really like is going to get hosed by a pending decision.
  • Your boss’ boss asks you to do something not in your boss’ best interest.

How would you handle these? There’s no “right” answer, but I’d encourage you to think broadly about how to prioritize and always remember “which side your bread is buttered on”.