One of the biggest fallacies jobseekers hold dear is that their careers in a new company will follow a straightforward program of work > evaluate performance > rinse > repeat. Once they’re hired, though, it hardly ever does. There’s one factor few job candidates weigh closely enough but has arguably the biggest impact on how they’ll progress in a new organization—their boss. That person won’t just shape your experience at this company, they may well influence the rest of your career.
After I joined Bain Capital Ventures as its first female investor, Mike Krupka, one of the partners, promoted me within my first year. It was a pretty unusual thing to happen, and it wouldn’t have without the strong working relationship we’d forged.
In an ideal world, your individual boss doesn’t just impact your day-to-day tasks; she’s also your professional champion. That means more than just writing a performance review or spending one-on-one time with you on a regular basis. Championing a protege (you!) means they give you the opportunity to acquire the skills and experiences you’ll need to advance. The difference between a boss who believes you’re doing a good job and one who believes in your future potential is night and day.
A boss who champions you will be the one who writes your business school recommendation, provides that influential reference to your next boss, or even writes that letter of support when you start your own company.
We’ve moved past the era of the lifetime career—one job for 40 years with a gold watch to show for it. Instead, most of our professional lives are fluid and constantly evolving, rich with multiple companies, roles, and experiences.
Because of that, my own goal as a boss is to create a high-impact career experience for everyone who works for me. But I can’t do that if I don’t understand how my team members each define success. I want to know what she or he is striving toward in their career path, both in the short and long terms, whether that’s within my company or beyond it.
A good boss also knows how to motivate you based on that knowledge. George Stalk, encouraged me to join his Innovation Group by sending me a box of the books he’d written, knowing that I was looking for a role that dealt with creative thinking and new concepts.
It doesn’t just stop with the job offer, though. A good boss listens carefully and keeps a lookout for opportunities for you to own projects that fit your talents and aspirations. What’s more, she’ll continually work to get to know you as best she can.
The day I left Bain to start my own company, another partner, John Connolly, a five-time CEO, hand-wrote a letter of support. “You can do it,” he said. “Believe in your strength.”
Seek to build a real rapport with your boss. Don’t just admire your boss’s successes, intelligence, or knack for personable chitchat. True rapport involves trust and connection: What will you bond over? What are the bridges and commonalities you share, and what are your personal differences? How are your styles and skill sets complementary?
Almost all my bosses have been men, which in many cases meant we didn’t share certain interests and hobbies. Still, it was important for us to find some kind of common ground to connect over.
Yet when you do build a rapport, your boss will work as hard as you do to make sure you learn and improve. When there’s trust, bosses give your occasional missteps the benefit of the doubt—they can distinguish between inexperience and lack of ability. And her confidence in you won’t falter unless you give her very good cause.
Choosing the right boss for you is an incredibly personal decision—just as as personal as finding a company you believe in or figuring out what role suits you. Your perfect boss won’t be mine, but some qualities are universal.
First, look for compassion. Your boss should be understanding and helpful when things are particularly challenging and give you the tools to succeed (but never a free pass). Second, look for transparency. Your boss should make her intentions clear at all times and communicate with you openly and honestly. Third, look for understanding. Your boss should make a point to understand you and your goals and truly listen carefully when you speak, even if it isn’t about something work-related. Finally, look for a champion. Your boss should have you back and stand up for you, always seeking out opportunities that will help you move ahead.
Michelle Lam is the founder of the innovative, data-driven bra retailer True&Co. Before transforming the world of women’s undergarments, Lam previously worked at Boston Consulting Group, Microsoft Corporate Strategy, and Bain Capital Ventures as its first female principal. Follow Michelle on Twitter @michelleklam.