How to Talk with Your Boss About Your Team's Work

Does your boss keep signing your team up for projects without checking with you first?  Does he or she seem to think that there is excess capacity on your team, and new requests and projects should be completed right away?  If so, you may not be communicating crucial information upward, and you risk overloading your team if you don't find a better way to "manage up."  As much as everyone hates putting together status reports, they are key to making sure that your boss fully appreciates your team's work, that you are prioritizing the work correctly, and that everyone in your reporting chain can see the complete picture.

Your boss is not aware of everything your team does.

If your organization is structured efficiently, your boss is overseeing more than just your team's work, which means that he or she does not have intimate knowledge of everything going on within your team.  That's by design: you are the one who needs to be tracking those things, not your boss.  The solution isn't to give your boss a blow-by-blow status update of everything,   The goal is to ensure that your boss has a comprehensive view of the major things your team is working on and how those things are going.  This can help circumvent surprise projects, since your boss will be more aware of the work already in progress, and in cases where new projects are unavoidable, that comprehensive list provides a tool for prioritizing the existing projects that will need to be sidelined, delayed, or dropped.  

You don't have time to not communicate upward.

It may feel like upward status is a luxury you don't have time for, especially if your boss isn't asking for it.  However, your overall workload is directly affected by how much your boss knows about what you're doing, so the only way you will be able to make your workload manageable is to regularly communicate upward.  The good news is that this isn't a make-work exercise.  Everything you create to communicate upward can also be used to communicate with your team, and it will also help you in prioritizing your own work and identifying potential issues before they become full-blown crises.  

Present information in an actionable format. 

Your boss doesn't need to know everything about what's going on.  He or she only needs to know a few key things:

  • The major projects the team is working on
  • Progress against deadlines/milestones/etc.
  • Any issues or obstacles you need the boss's help in resolving
  • Accomplishments, customer feedback, and other good news
  • Upcoming events, projects, etc., to be aware of
  • Anything else that will affect the boss's planning and decisions related to your team (for example, upcoming medical leave that will leave the team short-staffed for several weeks)

The simpler you can make these updates, the better.  Do not rely on verbal updates in meetings!  It's not reasonable to expect your boss to remember, and having something on paper to refer back to can be important for everything from defending decisions later to documenting progress and accomplishments.  Work you invest in these progress reports will not be wasted, and it very well might save your skin at some point.  Even better: if you present the information in a concise and compelling way, your boss might even use your reports in meeting with upper management.  

Dashboards make it easy for your boss to quickly see how things are going.

There are many different ways and formats for reporting status.  One that is currently popular (and for good reason) is the one-page dashboard.  The idea is to convey status graphically as dials or graphs so that the reader can quickly hone in on the areas that need attention.  Even if your projects are not easily quantified, you can still use this approach.  

The idea is that anything that is on track (based on standards, schedule, budget, or whatever else is relevant) are coded as green, anything that is in danger of not meeting a previously established standard is yellow, and anything that has already missed its target is coded as red.What you want to convey in your dashboard is all of the major things your team is working on (even if they are ongoing processes - your boss is even more likely to forget about those) and how those things are going.  Your report could be as simple as a list of projects with a color block next to each one indicating its status, and maybe a brief note next to it explaining the status.  While it might be tempting to create a bunch of pretty charts and graphs, make sure that your format is something you can repeatedly produce every week or two weeks, and also that it's clear what the charts actually mean.  Will the information help your boss make decisions and/or take actions?  If not, consider whether it needs to be included.  

Schedule status reporting as one of your critical tasks.

To implement this strategy, here are a few steps:

  1. Decide on the frequency that makes the most sense.  If you have one-to-one meetings every other week, then creating status reports every two weeks makes sense.  If things move really quickly in your organization and decisions need to be made more frequently than every two weeks, then weekly might make more sense.
  2. Ask each of your employees to provide a list of their key projects and major processes they oversees
  3. Identify the key information to report upward.  At a minimum, all of the key projects and processes your team is responsible for should be captured, even if just at a high level.  If your boss has key priorities for the year, anything that affects those priorities should also be included.
  4. Create a template for your report.  It doesn't need to be complicated, and ideally it should fit on one page.  As silly as it may sound, PowerPoint can actually work really well for creating visually appealing dashboards without much technical expertise.  
  5. Schedule time in your calendar for working on the reports, and add a repeating task to your task manager.  (You do have one, right?  If not, you might want to read this.)
  6. Let your employees know what information you will need, when you need it by, and what format you need it in.  Even better: find an employee on your team who is interested in metrics and reporting, and have him or her take responsibility for drafting the initial report.  The employee can pull together the numbers, and then all you have to do is add brief analysis indicating what the numbers mean and any actions you recommend as a result.
  7. Report status regularly.  Do not let more than four weeks go by without submitting some kind of document to your boss that captures the full picture of your team's work.  Even if your boss hasn't asked for it, do it anyway.  It's in your own best interests as well as your team's.

By putting together regular status updates and showing a thorough understanding of the projects in your team's portfolio, you will demonstrate your executive capabilities as well as manage your team's time more effectively.  You will make your boss's job easier - always a plus! - and demonstrate to your team that you are an advocate for them, not the stereotypical pointy-headed manager.  

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