There is nothing quite like the acute misery that comes with having a rubbish boss. As someone a few rungs above you on the corporate ladder, your boss should be the embodiment of perfection: a role model to admire, a leading light of whichever office it is that you choose to spend nine hours of your weekdays in and, most importantly, someone with your development and well being in the forefront of their minds. Every good manager wants to see his team grow professionally. Sadly, however, many bosses are also people, warts and all, which is obviously not ideal for us lowly little minions in our twenties. Your boss may set bad examples, be self-absorbed, be useless at man-management or just be a bit of a dick. Absolute power corrupts absolutely – it sucks. However, by virtue of their position they must have at least some redeeming qualities or they wouldn’t have been picked by the powers-that-be to lead your team in the first place. Your boss should be a vital part of your development, but if your boss isn’t helping you, what can you do to take matters into your own hands?


A reminder: your bosses are human too. While you’re slaving away over the finance spreadsheet or getting yet another tea round (no, I will not put the milk in first Sarah, you absolute philistine), it may seem like your boss is the epitome of calm, slowly adding animations to PowerPoint presentations or having a bit of a natter with one of the other managers. In reality, your boss likely has a plethora of things on their mind which are sent down from on high marked “URGENT!!!” or stamped with Outlook’s terrifying High Importance Exclamation Mark. I was lucky in that my last manager was very good, though at one point they did say that their urgent task sheet consisted of: creating two separate presentations for the client, negotiating rates with multiple advertising vendors, answering ad hoc questions on performance internally and externally, acting as the team lead on industry trends, reporting internally to their bosses and to other teams working on the same client, and (bearing in mind I left around July) planning Christmas spends. There were also plenty of other bits and bobs that would pop up throughout the day, further pushing their Account Execs’ development schedules further down the to-do list. My point is that while it may not seem like they do, your managers will usually have a truckload of urgent work and your development can often fall by the wayside.


So – first things first, set aside a time with them to talk through your development. Most companies now have mandatory development plans for all of their employees which managers take responsibility for, but if you haven’t discussed it before, the sheet will probably be in one of your boss’s mailboxes labelled “HR” or “TEAM STUFF” and marked as Low Importance (another crushing reminder of the occasional futility of the corporate world). If you gently force the issue and get the ball rolling yourself, then it’s easy to have bi-monthly or monthly catch-ups put into the diary. Do be careful with your approach though, as you don’t want to come across as being all “Hey boss! I’m doing your job for you, how great is that?! Haha jk” but rather that you’re just taking the initiative. Before doing this, make sure you know exactly what it is you want to talk to them about, as if you take the initiative and then have nothing to say you’re going to basically be wasting your boss’s time – never a good move.


All bosses should start with the question, “What do you think you need to improve upon?” Even David Brent, the infamously cringe-worthy boss from The Office, asked that of his staff (though admittedly Keith’s answer was “eczema”). Now that you have your catch-up in the diary, pre-empt this question by sitting down on your own and thinking about what specific skills or requirements you want to develop with their help. Ultimately, the more detailed an analysis of your own performance you can give them, the more they will be able and more inclined to help you. Trying to draw simple answers out from your staff is time-consuming and frustrating, so the clearer you can be, the better. If your boss is a bit of a trumpet polisher who thinks they’re the canine’s cojones, try to phrase your questions in such a way as to massage that tender ego – “I wanted to draw from your experience…,” or “I noticed that you handled this situation in this way…” etc. Everyone likes recognition, even bosses, so try to get them to wax lyrical in such a way as to benefit you, as well as their sense of self-worth. Don’t go overboard though – no-one likes a brown-nose unless it’s one that got too close to a chocolate fountain.


If, however, fate has decided that you have to make up for some heinous crime in a past life and you are given a boss so useless that it’s impossible to get them to help with your development, start thinking bigger. Most companies put on training sessions, workshops or even lectures about the industry and the practical skills required to succeed within it that are exceptionally useful when applied to one’s own role. If not, do some research online, find some industry talks and go to them or try to meet with senior members of your company – essentially, take the initiative! Go and push yourself to develop into the best employee you can be so that when it comes to appraisal time, even if your boss has been as useful as a bald man’s afro comb, you can have some examples of when you have demonstrated your ability to meet the demands of the role you’re trying to push into.


HR departments and their development structures would have you believe that your boss is the sole driver to your development, and while they are undoubtedly incredibly beneficial when you have a good one they are not the be all and end all. It is so easy in the workplace to rely on the pre-made institutions and structures for development as it is often so gloriously simple that other employees follow them to the letter. These structures are designed to allow for all types of employees, from rising stars to plod-alongs. Stand out from the crowd by taking matters into your own hands, good boss or bad. Someone who understands the company structure but is able to do their own thing within its confines is a very capable person to have.


Just remember to remember your experiences on the way up when you get there – the world doesn’t need a real David Brent.


Matt Underhill