• Motto

The One Thing You Must Do to Impress Your Boss

4 minute read

I barely raised an eyebrow the first day my then-7-year-old daughter asked, “Where are my flip flops?” I’m a working mom, so searching for sandals and sea shells was how I envisioned spending a family vacation. Ditto on the second day. But by the fifth day, the very same flip-flop question unleashed a wave of anxiety inside of me: Was I, the daughter of a doorman and a cleaning lady, raising a child so used to being waited on hand and foot that she didn’t take the initiative to look for her own shoes? How would I instill in her self-reliance, diligence, persistence and all those other critical qualities she would need to succeed in school—and to make it through the tougher days of her life?

Not interested in parenting a real-life Eloise or becoming the GPS for all missing things, I seized this moment to initiate my child’s self-starter campaign. On the last night of our vacation, before Maeve could ask her favorite question, I popped one of my own: “Tonight, can you find your flip flops?” Needless to say, she did not spend the rest of the evening barefoot. And I learned a valuable lesson in turning mundane queries into challenges and making sure she understood that, while Dora the Explorer could be delivered on demand, little else in life would be.

Confident I had dodged a decade’s worth of helicopter parenting, I returned to the office feeling happy, self-assured and proud—only to trip headfirst into drone bossing. While away, my publication’s plans to photograph a rock-and-roll chef had run aground over the grill-master’s wish to be snapped with a BBQ that would make the cover look like an advertisement.

“Hmm,” I said, eyeing images of the nifty-but-un-photogenic grill. “That’s not going to work.” Nods. Smiles. I waited to hear about the plan B launched in my absence…and waited…and waited. Was this just a bad post-vacation re-entry or a boss’ worst nightmare? The staff wanted my blessing to solve a problem they were perfectly capable of solving themselves.

A new wave of anxiety rolled in: Somewhere along the line, I had given my team the impression they needed my buy-in on everything. It didn’t help that I was a fast-and-furious problem-solver (born out of decades spent working on dailies and weeklies where you made 100 decisions an hour).

But it was no longer my job to make those calls, and the last thing I wanted to be was a micro-managing editor unable to see the horizon because I was lost in the blur of day-to-day. Just as I needed to teach my child tenacity and grit, I needed to show the staff how to become more self-directed and authoritative.

So I shared the story of Maeve, her MIA sandals and how, from then on, “Find your own flip flop,” would be the new office code for telling me what they wanted to do instead of just asking me what I wanted. Empowered by the flip flop (or, more likely, my making it clear just how much I valued their judgment), the team grew more confident and surefooted, and our meetings became more engaging and efficient. We started having discussions about the smartest solutions versus the obvious problems. It was all good, for all of us.

So why is this important for you? I don’t know your supervisor, but I promise you this: They hate it when you walk into their office and ask: “What do you want me to do about…?” They love it when they hear, “We hit a roadblock, but here’s the solution we want to share with you.”

Read more: The Piece Of Advice That Changed My Career

Smart bosses want you to make a call—or at least to try to. It is their job to put enough safety net around you to ensure you don’t do something catastrophic. It is your job to “work the problem,” as they say in Apollo 13, and understand that failing to present a solution is not an option.

You have the power to find your own flip flop. Think about that before you walk into your next meeting.

Maggie Murphy, the editorial director of the magazine app Texture, reports that her daughter no longer asks her help to find her missing footwear, but she has become quite bossy about the shoes she likes to wear.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com