Not Sure How to Exceed Expectations with Your Boss? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I lead a team that provides services to the professionals in my company. In my last performance review, my boss told me I needed to find new ways to add value to the organization.

At first I thought, okay, I can do that. But then I realized I really have no idea what “adding value” really means.

My boss is extremely busy and rarely shares insights about the organization. I feel like I can’t come up with good ideas in a vacuum, but I am also trying to figure out how to exceed expectations for my next performance review.

What do you think my boss means by this? Where should I start?

No Clue

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Dear No Clue,

The tricky thing about trying to exceed expectations is that it often involves being able to read people’s minds. For many high performers, it can be hard to know how to do that without going out of your swim lane and potentially causing chaos.

I agree that it is hard to tell what “add value” means to your boss. And without some idea of what your actual job is, it is hard for me to provide ideas. But when has that ever stopped me?

The question is: how can you get clues that are not forthcoming from your boss? They will have to come from your own experience, your team, and the people you serve.

You don’t want to launch into action without clarity about what a good job would look like. So start with yourself. Ask yourself: “What ideas have I had about how we might be more useful to our stakeholders? What perpetual issues keep cropping up? What do people complain about around here that my team and I might be able to do something about?” You may be surprised by how many ideas come to you.

Then ask your team: “In the course of your work, what do people seem to need or want that is currently not on our radar screen?” As the people closest to your customer base, they probably hear things you may not.

Finally, you might think about creating a survey to send to the people who use your services. Ask questions about what you currently do to assess whether their expectations are being met. Ask what might improve their experience. Then ask what other services might be useful to them. Of course, you may hear suggestions that fall outside of your remit, but you might also get some ideas of how you might “add value” to them. Those you ask will at least get the impression that you care enough to ask them.

Take all of the ideas that make sense to you and that you think might be viable for your team, and share them with your busy manager. Maybe put them in order of priority of what is simplest to implement while providing the most value. What could you offer at the lowest cost for the highest worth? She hopefully will be attracted to one or two of them, and, even better, may provide some suggestions of her own. At the very least, she will know you heard what she said and you are acting on her vague request.

If the whole effort is way off base, with any luck she will redirect you and you will have a little more to go on. Either way, I don’t think you will feel like your efforts are wasted.

It seems to me that it would be your boss’s job to provide strategic direction for your team’s performance. There is a chance she is too far removed from what you do to have any good ideas. We can speculate but we have no way of knowing. You can show initiative by doing something.

It takes a certain kind of confidence to take initiative in the absence of any direction. It shows leadership qualities. You may very well have more intuitive awareness than you give yourself credit for, but have not given yourself permission to trust it.

Make your plan and execute it slowly, keeping your boss updated as you go. Take any and all feedback under advisement and revise your plan accordingly. Action begets action, and that is what creates momentum.

Good luck.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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