"I can't be expected to meet my deadline when I get a competing assignment from Ms. Otherboss."

If you are like most leaders/managers in accounting firms, your direct-reports suffer from what I call the "other boss" (or "multiple bosses") problem. This means they answer to more than one boss and thus have to juggle competing assignments from other managers in addition to you.

It's complicated for the employee and for you when you are managing an employee who answers to more than just you. This direct-report has more than one boss and/or dotted-line relationships on certain projects with other managers. When you give such an employee an assignment, it's not always clear how many other assignments that employee is juggling or whether an "urgent" assignment from another boss will interfere with completing an assignment on time for you. For his part, your direct-report in this scenario is in a bit of a pickle. He needs to juggle the priorities of multiple competing bosses and either be worn to a frazzle or decide which one of you he is going to disappoint, if not both.

A senior partner in a large accounting firm (I'll call him "Mr. Tax") told me this story: "We have constant competition among the partners and senior directors for the best associates. I could be working very well with an associate and then another partner would steal him away. Then the associate is not delivering for me because he is working for this other partner on something. So I'd talk to the associate and ask, ‘Did you tell [Mr. Other Boss] you were working on this project for me?' And he'd say, 'Yes, I did, but I'm stuck in the middle.' Here is this young associate trying to choose between the work I'm assigning and the work this other partner is assigning. How is the associate supposed to know how to set priorities in that case? I tell associates, ‘If another partner tries to give you an assignment, tell him you are working on this for me with a tight deadline and that I told you that no one else has the authority to put other assignments ahead of mine, so the other partner will have to call me to discuss the competing assignments.' We put associates in that position all the time. It was not reasonable. It's up to me to provide that guidance about how to handle those conflicts."

You want to be the manager who provides guidance, direction and support in helping your direct-reports navigate their way through these complex authority relationships. Help direct-reports anticipate and plan for dealing with "other bosses" who might get in the way of your reporting relationship. In your regular one-on-ones, talk through the particular "other boss" scenarios that are getting in their way at any given point:

What if your own boss is one of those other bosses giving competing assignments to your direct reports? Does your boss ever cut you out of the chain of command by going directly to your direct-reports with assignments or instructions?

1. Talk directly to your own boss about this and ask: "Did you mean to do that?" Then you have to ask, "Are you now going to manage this employee on this assignment you've given or do you want me to do it?"

2. Teach your direct-reports how to respond to your boss when he gives them assignments directly. Teach them to ask, "Do you want me to report to you on this assignment from now on or to my own manager? If I'm reporting directly to you on this, maybe the three of us should discuss how it affects my other responsibilities?"

3. Every step of the way, you (perhaps in dialogue with your boss), not your direct-reports, should be deciding which of the competing assignments takes higher priority and make that 100 percent clear.

What if other "bosses," dotted-line or internal customers or otherwise, are coming directly to your direct-reports with competing assignments? Teach your direct-reports to:

1. Stop and check: "Am I the right person for this assignment? After all, my primary assignments are __ and my primary manager is ___."

2. Determine the parameters of the assignment: How long is this going to take? What are the requirements?

3. Figure out whether this assignment will get in the way of their primary assignments. Explain the conflict and ask when they need to get back to the other manager.

What if other bosses hold your direct-reports to higher or lower standards than you or impose conflicting rules?

1. Always make sure that your direct-reports are 100 percent clear about the standards you expect from them when they are reporting to you. The more "other bosses" your direct-reports have, the more opportunities there are for conflict and confusion. So it becomes important to remind those direct-reports regularly of your standards and rules. Let them know, "Whenever you are working on an assignment for me, we follow these standards and these rules. On this assignment, here are the standards. Here are the rules." Whenever possible, provide a set of standard operating procedures, step-by-step instructions, or a check-list.

2. Remind your direct-reports that when they are working for other managers, they need to get 100 percent clear on the standards that other manager expects when they are reporting to her. Tell your direct-reports, "When you are working for me, please do it my way. When you are working for that other manager, do it her way."



There was a longtime media executive I knew who had this approach to competing with other bosses for his direct-reports' time and effort: "If an employee reports to me and another honcho too, you can be sure, I am definitely the executive that employee does not want to disappoint. I make sure of that!" Why don't they ever want to disappoint him? He followed these simple rules of engagement:

  • Be the manager who is always going to follow up and insist on accountability.
  • Be the manager who sets up employees for success and tracks their performance and follows through with credit and rewards accordingly when they deliver.
  • Be the manager who pays close attention to what other projects your employee is juggling for other managers. Talk about how your assignment might interfere with her other work. Ask how her other work might interfere with the work you are assigning. Decide together whether she will be able to meet your requirements.
  • Be the manager who holds everybody to a high standard regardless of what other managers require. Remind your employees regularly and enthusiastically that you are different.

Bruce Tulgan is the CEO of Rainmaker Thinking, and the author of It's Okay to Be the Boss. This article is adapted from his new book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face, which will be published this month by Jossey-Bass.

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