Monday, April 14, 2008

Suggestions for How Best to Follow Your Boss’s Instructions

This sentence of career advice caught my eye: “When your boss makes requests or gives instructions, what should you do to exceed his or her expectations?” (from the book “How to Succeed in Your First Job: Tips for New College Graduates” by Elwood F. Holton III and Sharon S. Naquin).

Probably why I paid particular attention to this sentence was because a friend had just complained to me about a young person she’d hired for temp work. She said that she hired him to help her get organized in her home-based business, and he hadn’t been good at following instructions.

Thus the concept of “following instructions” got me thinking:

First, it’s important to follow instructions before exceeding expectations. While this may seem obvious, it isn’t necessarily so. If you’re so concentrated on what a good job you’re going to do, how you’re going to do even more than your boss asked for, you may actually miss doing what he or she actually did ask for.

And what if those instructions are confusing? My friend complained that her helper asked for too much clarification. But she admitted that she knew what she was referring to when she gave instructions, and he didn’t.

Thus you need to make sure you understand the instructions, yet do this in a way that doesn’t tax your boss’s patience. If, for example, your boss emails you instructions that aren’t quite clear, you can email back and say you’ll do x and y. Plus did he/she mean for you to also do z or a? This reply will show that you understood most of the instructions and you only need one piece of clarification. This is a reasonable clarification request.

This clarification strategy works the same if your boss tells you instructions. Either repeat back what he/she has said and ask for one piece of clarification. Or shoot him/her an email that outlines what you are doing per his/her request and then asking for the one piece of clarification. Whatever approach you use, if your boss gives you instructions orally, write them down immediately before you forget anything.

What if you need two pieces of clarification? Try to choose the most important clarification now for starting the project. Then you can send a follow-up email briefly reporting on your progress and asking for the additional piece of clarification. And, in fact, as you work on a project, you may discover the answer to the second question without asking your boss.

Second, once you have completed the instructions BEFORE the requested deadline, you can then contemplate exceeding the instructions – extra revenue graphs, more examples of competitors’ products, whatever.

And if you are new to the organization, you may want to check out – with a trustworthy more-seasoned colleague – your plan to exceed expectations. It may be you have a boss who wants what he/she asked for and nothing more! (The boss’s reasons for wanting nothing more could be as varied as no extra reading or no opportunity for others to be embarrassed at being upstaged.)

Know what is expected of you – and deliver the best work per your boss’s instructions. Once you’ve accomplished this in a timely fashion, you can consider going the extra mile on that project.

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