A reader writes:
A recent snafu at work has left me wondering on how I should handle similar situations in the future. One of my supervisors frequently leaves things I need for my work to the last minute. I understand my supervisor is extremely busy (doing the work of 1.5-2 people right now), but I’m getting knocked for these things not getting done or for errors resulting from the unreasonable time constraints.
Most recently, I waited 4-6 weeks for a letter for a mailing. I gave verbal reminders and an email reminder. As a result, the letter went out without some key pieces that I later found out were wanted/required but wasn’t informed about, as well as with a typo. This is all made more urgent as one piece in the packet (that couldn’t be sent without the letter) becomes irrelevant in a few weeks.
How would you recommend I handle situations like this in the future? I’m at a bit of a loss because of the power differential between us, and I don’t want to overstep my bounds or make it seem like I’m throwing my manager under the bus to our boss. In the past when I’ve asked for deadlines, for example with the letter, I was told as soon as possible or on X date. Then X date passes and I still don’t have it.
Think of it this way: Your job as the owner of these projects is to do everything in your power to get them done by their deadlines, but you do not have a magic wand that can compel your manager to produce things more quickly. That means that you should focus on the pieces that you can control. For example:
* Be very, very clear ahead of time about the trade-offs for delays. For example: “In order to have this fully proofed and in the mail in time for the content to still be relevant to people, I need your piece by Tuesday. If we get it on Wednesday or later, we can still get it to the printer in time but will need to skip the usual proofreading. If it’s Friday or later, we’ll be giving recipients hardly any time before the offer expires.” Then, if you get it on Thursday, you say, “I want to remind you that because our deadline was Tuesday, we’re going to skip the usual proofreading in order to get this in the mail on time.” (It’s still going to be your boss’s prerogative to say “no, find a way to get the proofing done before it goes out,” and then you have a conversation about what to push back to make that happen and whether it’s worth delaying the mail date or not.)
* Once a deadline is missed, follow up immediately and provide similar info as above. For example: “I know you’re swamped. I was hoping to get X from you by yesterday. At this point, we can still get it out next week but I’d need to get it from you today. If that’s not realistic, can we talk about how to proceed?”
* In the spirit of focusing on the pieces here that you can control, if we assume that your manager may not be able to get you what you need by when you need it, are there other ways you could get those things or make it easier/faster for to get them done? For instance, you might say to her, “I know you’re swamped — how about I draft this and then run it by you so that you just need to sign off?” Or, “I know you get a ton of documents for review. Is there a way for me to make it easier for you to give input? Would it be easier to review if I brought things to our meetings rather than emailing them, or maybe there are some things that I can move forward with on my own?”
* Talk about the big-picture pattern. For example: “I know that you’re juggling tons of things and can’t always meet the internal deadlines I’m setting for my projects. Is there a better way for me to navigate that? A few times, it’s led to me getting dinged for delays, so I’m hoping that there might be a better way for me to approach it.” And/or: ““[Bad consequences] are happening when I’m not able to get your pieces in time. Should we just accept that that will happen sometimes, or would it it make sense to handle this stuff differently?”
* If the person knocking you for the problem resulting from these delays is someone other than your manager (sounds like it might be her boss?), it’s reasonable to say, “Can we make sure that Lucinda knows that we ended up delaying this because of priority conflicts? I don’t want it to look like an oversight.”
Ultimately, your manager may make the call that Priority X is more important than Your Priority Y, even if it means that Y is delayed or otherwise negatively impacted, but the keys are to make sure that she’s making those calls with full information about the trade-offs, and that she’s making it clear to you and her own boss that she’s doing that.