What to do when your boss is always MIA

Hello? Anyone there?
Hello? Anyone there?
Image: REUTERS/Alex Domanski
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Your boss doles out the work, but then she’s nowhere to be found when you’ve got a question or a problem. Or worse yet, she starts dumping her meetings on you (with no notice) because she’s always traveling. You can’t control your boss’s schedule, so what do you do?

Before you start dusting off your resume and planning an abrupt exit—consider using a few managing up techniques. Admittedly, dealing with the MIA boss is tricky, but there are strategies you can use to be successful in spite of her frequent absences.

Figure out what your boss cares about most

When trying to address the issue, reference your boss’s priorities to create a more natural motivation and sense of urgency. Is your boss focused on reducing costs, decreasing turnover, looking good to his boss, delivering a higher quality product, satisfying the customer? Identify her soap box issue and use that language when you make your plea.

What you might be thinking: “How in the world are we going to get the business case completed on time when you’re traveling all the time and never around to provide approvals or answer questions?”

What you should say instead: “I know that Jim is expecting this completed business case by the end of the month, and missing that date would be a huge black mark for our team.  I definitely want to be sure we always represent you well and our team is highly regarded. Since you’re traveling frequently, we should probably take some time to review the project schedule and devise a plan to ensure that we have what we need when you may not be immediately available. I’ve brainstormed some specific ideas; could we possibly discuss those sometime this week?”

Get to know her assistant and leverage that person’s access if possible

If the boss has an assistant, that person likely knows much more about her schedule than you, and may also communicate with her multiple times a day. Admins are gatekeepers with lots of power, so it never hurts to befriend them. They also might be able to give you valuable advice about how to best manage the boss, since they likely have the same challenge.

Inquire about the possibility of using a group calendar for scheduling purposes

Once you are equipped with this additional schedule visibility, take steps to proactively plan around absences or consider building buffer time into project schedules as needed to minimize the negative impact of your boss’s likely absences.

Remind your boss that her input is key

This is your opportunity to lather it on a bit. Sometimes managers have demands pulling them in many different directions, and they really do forget what a difference their presence makes. Don’t just pile on the compliments though; also remind your boss of the huge impact her presence can make to the work results.

You might say something like this: “I certainly don’t envy your schedule. I know you’re being pulled in a million directions at once.  I did want to check in with you regarding the upcoming project. I know how important it is that we get this one right, and you’re such an important part of our quality assurance process, that I want to be sure we develop a timeline that’s realistic given your travel schedule (and other crises that might pull you away).”

Ask for alternate support options while she’s out

The practical reality is that senior-level leaders will sometimes need to be away quite often, and the team and its work must continue to function in their absence. Proactively identifying alternative sources for support in a leader’s absence can be a key component for success. Just make sure that your boss recommends those alternate options, so that it doesn’t appear that you’re attempting to “replace” your boss’s counsel.

Ask how you can help 

Oftentimes senior leaders are MIA because they’re swamped with demands. As such, an MIA boss may respond well to your offer to take something off her plate. Indeed, if you offer to sit in on a few meetings on her behalf or take over a labor-intensive task, it not only frees her up a bit, but also creates critical goodwill between the two of you—which is never a bad idea.

Dana Brownlee is author of the upcoming book The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches.