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How to avoid messing up when you have multiple managers

Trouble x 4

Trouble x 4

Last month he told us how best to start out in financial services, now Vivek Sharma advises on an equally tricky issue: reporting to more than one person.

Desperate times call for desperate measures: financial services firms in Asia have been consolidating roles across all levels to facilitate efficiency. However, for the employees who are left behind, this means juggling several roles at the same time and having many bosses breathing down your neck. Your problems multiply when you report into people overseas who you may never have even met – this is especially common in large firms with complex organisational structures.

Having many bosses is complicated. It is imperative to be careful, lest you risk letting them and yourself down. I have worked for more than one manager at three points in my career. Here is my survival guide:

Understand who’s the boss

First comes the realisation of what you are up against. It is important to understand how many people you are reporting to and who they are. In smaller firms, don’t assume that you have only one boss as authority structures are often blurry and you may well end up reporting to all the senior people. If you are just starting your career, chances are high that you will need to “unofficially” support many managers. When you are not sure, seek help. When there is no help, be conservative.

Make sure they know your reporting structure

When I started my career in financial services, I was directly reporting to four bosses, two of whom sat right next to me, while the others were in different offices. I was fortunate that the department head took pains to explain my role and the reporting structure to all four of them. During that role my managers changed twice, once onshore and once offshore. I started facing difficulties handling my new offshore boss as she did not know what my other responsibilities were. I was reluctant to talk directly to someone who I knew only by voice, so I asked my department head to intervene. Thanks to an open environment, my pain lasted only a few weeks. You may not be that lucky, so speak out when the time comes and make sure they all know your problems

Be proactive

I have learnt many lessons about being proactive and I think a multiple-bosses situation is the ideal time to put these into practice. Be proactive in letting managers know what you have on your plate. Even if you are not sure of their reaction, being proactive rarely harms you. In my first job, I made it a point to send all my bosses a to-do list every Monday and sometimes, if required, every day. I was not sure of a positive reaction when I first did this, but I was delighted to learn that most bosses like proactive employees. That lesson still holds true.

Figure out who has the power to fire you

Even in big companies with open cultures, there may be teams that work in fear-based environments. If you are caught in such a place, you must know your priorities. Your first one should be to protect your job. Figure out, do not ask, which boss wields the most power over you. Even if the offshore manager may be more senior, it is highly likely the one who sits next to you has the power to dismiss you. Once you know the most important person, your second priority is to prioritise assignments from him or her.

Make use of resources

When video conferencing was first introduced at my company, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to my offshore boss. I could not believe what a delightful experience it was. Managers are less scary when you know them by more than their name and their voice.

In summary, it all boils down to knowing who influences your appraisal as well as who completes it. It is possible that all your bosses are involved in that process. When you figure that out, you know where to go to seek help and who you need to keep informed. The rest can easily fall into place via a balancing act.

The views expressed are personal to the author, who is a Hong Kong-based finance professional. They do not represent those of eFinancialCareers or any other entity.

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