6 Ways to Better Support Your Director
It’s possible that no relationship has been more pivotal in my career growth than that which I’ve had with the directors I’ve worked for. And no position is more difficult than being their “right hand man.”
In both of my recent positions I was required to work very closely with my directors and superiors. This meant that in both my positions, not only did I need to be able to execute directions — but at times I felt like I needed to learn how to read minds, mediate, put out communication fires and successfully cover things up too.
Whether it was truly possible for me to fulfill this role didn’t matter. It was expected of me.
But I’ll be honest. Being pulled into a meeting to give an explanation for decisions I didn’t make, trying to keep consistent messages and communication between two directors and a team, and constantly working to push through someone else’s creative direction or oddities was no piece of cake.
Trust that the saying “Don’t shoot the messenger.” took on a whole new meaning for me.
I’m convinced that if you’re holding a position like this there are several best practices to follow and boundaries that must be set to stay mentally equipped and ahead of the curve.
So here are 6 key disciplines that I’m working towards mastering! They’ll help anyone who feels like they spend half their day perfecting their mind reading skills and the other half trying to relay those messages without getting taken down in a cubicle drive-by.
1. Master your director’s weakness.
When your director hires you to work beside them you immediately become their right hand man. First thing to learn — no matter what you were expecting to do on the job, your director sees you as one thing and one thing only — the solution to whatever problem they can’t solve themselves. I don’t care what the job descriptions said. This will always be the case.
In other words — it’s not your boss who will have to master his or her detail management issues or deadline deficiencies. You will.
2. Manage and discipline your director.
Failed projects, bad communication, missed deadlines and any other issues that arise during your partnership will quickly teach you that a busy director needs management.
This is a perfect follow-up to the first point about mastering your director’s weaknesses. Part of mastering them means not letting your boss drop any of his or her own balls because of those weaknesses.
For a busy director especially, it’s your responsibility to make sure that they prioritize, communicate, finalize and initiate as they should. Whatever their weakness is — if you don’t have the authority to manage the projects at hand yourself you must be sure that your director does.
In positions like this, you have to stay two steps ahead. You have to learn your director so well that you’re able to see where things will fall through and prevent them from happening by directing your boss or taking the initiative to make sure it gets done yourself.
3. Think — don’t regurgitate.
There is absolutely no room for regurgitation when you’re not only the shoulder your director stands on – but also the subsequent voice everyone listens to. You must understand everything. Despite what your director or anyone else tells you there will come a time when you alone will be forced to answer questions that you and your superior didn’t take the time to discuss. You will have to give potential or hypothetical plans that you and your director haven’t nailed down yet, or will be asked for an explanation of a decision you had no part in making in front of your entire team.
My agency manager would do this to me all the time. Seemingly in the dark herself half of the time, she would ask me for explanations of things that my director and I had never discussed, decisions that my boss had made without telling me why, or worse — decisions that my boss had made for reasons that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing.
I quickly learned that I had to protect myself by grilling my director to understand the “who, what, when, where and why” of absolutely everything I could.
Bottom line is, when you’re sitting at the conference table in a team meeting — if you can’t answer the questions then you’re the weak link. Always be prepared with your own insights, opinions, and interpretations to be sure you’re never caught with your jaw dropped and nothing to say.
4. Use the “he said, she said”
Don’t be afraid to justify your actions based on something you were told to do by a director. If something goes wrong, needs explanation or is confusing and your only direction to go by is information you got from someone else — including your boss — relay it.
I point this out because I realized I had a strange tendency to not want to justify things that I did by saying “my director told me to…”. But if you don’t do this your only other option is to fumble around looking for a rationalization. And fumbling makes you look worse than admitting you did it strictly out of direct orders.
5. Don’t take all the heat
Setting boundaries for accountability is a mental must! You have to learn what you are and aren’t accountable for. This is less about keeping your job as it is about remembering your self-worth and maintaining your self-confidence. I have no idea why, but in my last position I rarely spoke up for myself or against bad practice when I could have.
Knowing where you could and couldn’t have prevented things from happening, as well as how issues could have been avoided will be key to successfully moving forward in a position where at times you may feel like your sinking or swimming depends solely on pleasing a director’s interests.
And standing up for yourself when it’s easy to become the scapegoat is going to be key to keeping your job.
6. Remember your role
In the end, being a trustworthy support system is what’s going to convince your director to push you ahead.
No matter how good you get at what you’re doing, how anxious you get about an upcoming deadline, how much your team may come to respect you in the absence or as the representation of your director – never forget that you are a support system.
Continuously crossing the line in any way, overstepping authority or even unintentionally undermining a director’s decision shows a lack of humility and respect and may cause other superiors and yours to mistrust you. Do what you do well — and in time your own authority will begin to grow.
The best partnership can take time and effort to build.
For those of you whose positions require the mastery of these skills, know that they are seldom taught and often learned. For the most part only time, experience and perhaps even one or two heartbreaking terminations can perfect them (based off my experience). It took my being fired from my agency (and weeks of self-reflection, blame and forced appreciation) for me to even acknowledge how pivotal it is that I master them.
Why so much inner conflict? “All learning has an emotional base”, it has once been said. And it is that undercurrent that will make mastery both so rewarding and so painful at the same time.