Over dinner with a friend who was (rightfully) bragging about how his new import shipping initiative would save his company millions while reducing distribution system cycle times, I asked, “So your boss must be pretty happy, eh?” Turned out he hadn’t told his boss anything. Time after time when logistics managers are asked about their communication with the boss, bosses too often have no idea of their logistics managers’ great initiatives.

    It isn’t that bosses don’t care, or subordinates are inattentive. Logistics managers and company leadership live on the same planet, but often occupy very different worlds. For example, I asked one boss, the owner of several blown glass art galleries that handle substantial internet ordering, “With such a high cost, fragile product, and given the importance of presentation for your product when the customer first opens that box, you must work closely with your shipping manager, right?” He looked surprised, thought for a minute, and then said he would jump into learning that important piece of his business!

    The unfortunate truth is that the boss needs help. Research by the Boston Consulting Group found that in the top 20% most complicated organizations, managers spend 40% of their time writing reports and 30-60% of their time in meetings. Across all organizations, the complexity of management (procedures, bureaucratic layers, decision approvals, etc.) increased 50% to 350% over the 15 years ending in 2005, and the pace of growing complexity has only increased. A business environment where most companies emphasize a “top-down” approach to their organization compounds the “busy boss” issue as responsibility for communication lies mostly on the boss’s shoulders.

    The obvious solution for the conscientious logistics manager is to take more responsibility for communication. Most subordinates don’t engage in enough “bottom-up” relationship management because it has an association with political maneuvering, and they perceive (or hope) that the boss will appreciate their efforts more at “ground level”. But the boss can only be enthusiastic about logistics’ role in the company if logistics managers keep them informed about what to be enthusiastic about. Just as there are dangers in communicating too little, there are dangers to communicating too much, or communicating the wrong way. Here are some pointers to communicate just right to a boss who’s busy:

    1. Start with the effect, and then backfill the cause. Bosses often don’t have 15 minutes to hear the back story. Instead, start with what’s important: tell the boss what the outcome will be. By starting with the results, the boss can simultaneously be informed and decide whether he or she needs to get involved or can trust you to take care of it. If the boss needs them, you can provide important details afterwards. This saves the boss time, and forces you to view the problem from the boss’s perspective.

    2. Adapt your venue. How does your boss best perceive the type of information you need to communicate? Some bosses are great at the snap decision, so a short conversation as they walk the halls might suffice. Bigger decisions or more complicated problems might need a report. But many bosses are people-oriented, so don’t be afraid to branch into alternative means of communicating: create an internal blog or short video that can be viewed when convenient; ask the secretary to put the item on a meeting agenda; add a short audio file to accompany a single Power Point slide; or - for less urgent topics - perhaps take the opportunity to chat at a social venue. Some bosses will even sit down once a quarter or once a month for a meal and a talk to get to know your problems more intimately; don’t be afraid to ask for an “off-site” venue for more strategic or subtle initiatives.

    3. Stay with bite-sized chunks. Respect the boss’s time. A lot of people want his attention, but if you can communicate in 5 or 15 minutes, you just gave yourself between four and twelve times as many opportunities to communicate compared to someone who needs an hour. A great many problems can be more easily resolved in three intense 10 minute talks than in a single half-hour meeting. Time compression forces you to focus on what’s most important.

    4. Don't hide bad news. When things are going wrong, give your boss as early a warning as possible, with one or two recommended solutions or mitigations. Once you have a problem, your boss has a problem, and it can only help you (and your career) if you proactively handle the situation honestly, and up front.

    So help your boss (and yourself) by using just the right amount of communication at the right time and place.

    This article is part of the monthly series authored by the Institute for Supply Management’s Logistics & Transportation Group Board Members, who are current practitioners, consultants, trainers, and educators. In future columns, they will continue sharing their views on a number of Supply Chain and Professional Development topics.

    Dr. Michael Gravier, PhD, CTL, is an Associate Professor of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Bryant University in Providence, RI. He is also the 1st Vice Chair of ISM’s Logistics & Transportation Group and can be reached at 
    mgravier@bryant.edu or (401) 232-6950. Membership in the L&T Group is open to all current ISM members who are responsible for or have an interest in Logistics & Transportation.

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