It’s natural to think that the most frustrating boss is the one who stands over your shoulder every moment of a project, asking if you’ve thought of this and remembered to check that. However, it can be equally challenging to work for a boss who is nowhere to be found.
Picture this: Every time you say (or think), “I’ll just run that by my supervisor,” no one’s there. So you alternate between deflecting the questions you know you aren’t supposed to answer, making executive decisions you aren’t positive you’re allowed to make, and trying to figure out the best way forward by yourself.
This is a sink or swim situation. Some people feel unsure what to do and end up doing nothing. Some people take their newfound freedom too far and learn after the fact that they took the project way off course. And a third group of people find a way to adapt and make it work.
In a previous job, I worked for someone who was too busy to be my supervisor—so I taught myself how to complete projects that would meet his expectations without needing too much oversight. Steal my steps if you’re in the same situation and struggling to succeed.
1. Be Really Clear on Your Goals
Thankfully, my way-too-busy manager was very self-aware. When he hired me, he told me that he wouldn’t have time to provide classic supervision. My job was to take work off his plate, and part of that meant steering my own workload from the beginning (a.k.a., I wrote my own position description and training plan).
That taught me that the key—for projects of any size—is clear expectations. Because when your boss makes it clear that she doesn’t have the time (or interest or skills) to provide active management, doing your job means achieving the outcomes you’re expected to without much guidance.
So, if there is ever a time to beat the proverbial dead horse, it’s when your hard-to-track-down boss assigns you work. Because while it may be impossible to pick her brain during the process, you have a captive audience in the moment (or in the email) when she’s explaining it to you. Here are the key questions you want to ask:
- On what grounds is the success of the project being judged?
- What are the key parameters (budget, timing, personnel)?
- Am I empowered to move the project forward?
- What else should I know?
2. Get Everything Ready (But Check in Before You Finalize Anything)
Once those questions are answered, work toward the finish line. For example, my busy boss asked me to plan an outreach event around a major holiday. I could pick the location, caterer, décor, budget—you name it. He didn’t have time or interest to compare one venue to another, and just kept saying, “I trust you.” That’s great, but also totally nerve-wracking. (As you’ll note, “How do you feel about linens and lighting?” was not one of my key questions at the outset of the project.)
So, I came up with a plan. I found what I thought was the best venue and negotiated a price. I figured out food, capacity, decorations, and everything else. But before I signed or formally confirmed anything, I set a meeting with my supervisor. By waiting until I had a plan (or in some cases, the top two options), I was asking for a meeting that was worth his time. He knew I wasn’t going to ask him to make a ton of little decisions—and I could confirm I was on the right track.
3. Share Your Reasoning
The meeting itself might not be as self-explanatory as you’d hope. At this point, you’re hoping to present the plan and have your trusting boss say, “Brilliant!” (And maybe you work for a truly absent person who just rubber stamps your efforts—in which case, proceed.)
But it’s more likely that your supervisor just hates minutiae. While she didn’t want to be looped in every step of the way, now she’s listening, and she doesn’t understand why you think the conference should be in a different city, half as long, or targeting twice as many people.
At first, your supervisor’s fly-by interest (or criticism) might make you feel like you should just go back to the drawing board, or snap back that she should’ve told you all this before you put hours worth of work into it. Instead, take a deep breath and ask if you could have a few moments to explain why you think this is the best (or best set) of options.
Work through how the new city would drive engagement with an untapped portion of your demographic or how attendance dropped off on day two in past years. Connect everything back to the goals you were given. Show that you did your due diligence, looked into other options, and only wanted her to spend time on the best one. Stand up for the hard work you did—it will make a difference!
4. Welcome Revisions
Maybe your boss sees it your way—or maybe he’s still pushing back on part of the plan. If that’s the case, remind yourself that he’s your supervisor for a reason. If he tells you that he’s been working with this client for a decade and she never responds positively to hearing a new idea over the phone, that’s valuable information (even if throws a wrench in your plans). So, discuss how you might alter your strategy to fit with this new information.
Keep this is mind: When your boss steps in to provide management and feedback (however late or limited), if you act like she’s basically ruining your life by speaking up, you’re discouraging future involvement—and being disrespectful. Instead, share how valuable her ideas are. Then, next time you start on a new project, ask for more complete feedback in your initial conversation.
Yes, it can feel overwhelming to be tasked with managing yourself, but if you’re up to the challenge, you just may learn that you’re capable of doing more on your own than you’d ever thought possible. That can be a pretty great feeling and set up you up to manage much larger responsibilities down the road.