I can almost guarantee that when coaching or running workshops on the topic of leadership and influence that I am asked 2 questions about this!
Let’s start with the first question…
‘Why should I manage my own manager?’
When I am asked this, I often refer back to the classic Harvard Business Review article: “Managing Your Boss”, in which John Kotter and John Gabarro describe why you need to manage upwards:
“Just think of the job and how to be effective in it. How do you get the resources you need, the information you need, the advice, even the permission to keep at it? The answers always point toward whoever has the power, the leverage – that is, the boss. To fail to make that relationship one of mutual respect and understanding is to miss a major factor in being effective.”
If you do not have a good relationship with your manager it can cost you a lot of time, lead to a lot of frustration and is more likely to have a detrimental impact on your career than theirs!
Their second question is naturally…
‘Exactly how do I do it?’
Even the most experienced professionals can struggle with this one. After all, it can be hard enough managing those we’re responsible for, without ‘managing upwards’ as well!’
So, here are some top tips….
1. Make sure you really (really…) know your boss
When it comes to clients/key stakeholders we realise it’s important to work hard to get to know them; their individual needs and drivers and their business agenda. We’re prepared to put in the time and energy on this because we know it’s vital to build a great business relationship – well the same is true for your relationship with your boss.
So how well do you know your boss? Ask yourself these questions and if you don’t know the answers perhaps it is time to find out!
- What are her/his targets?
- How does the organisation measure them?
- What are their top priorities?
- What is keeping them awake at night?
Knowing this will help you to focus your time and energy to help them to succeed. In return, they are more likely to value your contribution and support you.
2. Know what your manager expects from you
It may not always be explicit but your boss will certainly have expectations of the people in her/his team and what excellence looks like.
Working with many leaders over the years here are just some of the things your manager might be looking for – e.g. do they value…:
- Doing things ‘the right way’
- Offering help without being asked
- Doing things faster than expected
- Providing information that they need –even before they know that they need it!
- Helping them to deliver – on time
- Protecting and enhancing their reputation
- Having time to focus on their priorities rather than chasing others to deliver
Discovering what’s important to your boss will pay dividends in terms of your relationship and is far more likely to be repaid in kind.
3. Make your boss your ‘ally’
Now that you really understand your manager – you are ready to position yourself as their ally. This doesn’t mean that the relationship needs to be a subservient one. Real allies have open and honest conversations, they may not always agree but they will listen to what each other wants. Being an ally means both supporting and asking for what you need to be able to support them effectively. Having a mind-set of being allies is the foundation for effectively managing upwards.
So – having understood what’s important to them, can you help them achieve it?
4. Keep it positive – don’t try to remodel them
When managing upwards it can be tempting to focus on how you want to change your manager. Far more productive, and less frustrating is to build on what is working in the current relationship and how to make it even better.
After all your boss is only human, with strengths and limitations just like the rest of us. As we’ve discussed in other articles on developing strengths it’s far more productive to build on strengths rather than trying to fix their weaknesses. Keep it positive.
5. Build on your boss’s strengths
So, ask yourself, what does your boss do well? Where do their strengths lie? How can you leverage those strengths? One effective way to manage your manager is helping them to do what they are good at. You might do this by taking on other roles yourself, especially those which utilise your own strengths or an area where your boss has a weakness or blind spot. Ensure your boss is familiar with the concept of strengths-based management.
6. Be willing to flex & adapt your style
We’re all different, and that means you may need to flex your own style to build the best working relationship with your boss.
For example, Peter Drucker in ‘The Effective Executive’, identifies ‘listeners’ and ‘readers’. Listeners prefer to talk to gain understanding, readers prefer to read before discussing. So, if your boss is a ‘listener’, brief them in person and then follow up with a mail. If they are a ‘reader’, cover important points of your proposal in a mail or report, then discuss them. Remember that your efforts to manage your boss should be guided by what will work for them as well as you.
Insights Discovery or similar personality models can really help with this and gives a better understanding of ourselves and others; if you have an idea of your boss’s Insights personality type this can really help you to find the best ways to work together.
7. Avoid being overloaded or having your time wasted!
Managing upwards is not about doing what your boss wants without question. Your manager has a legitimate right to direct your time and determine your priorities to meet business objectives and targets but that does not give them the right to overload or waste your time.
So how can you manage your own time effectively whilst maintaining the relationship with your boss, and what do you need to look out for? Here are some ideas that might help…
- Tell your boss when you are reaching saturation point – before you are totally overloaded and are close to melt down
- Make your boss aware of the impact of overload: ‘yes I could get that done by then, but that would delay this…’
- Don’t feel that you need to say ‘yes’ to everything your boss asks you to do – negotiate!
- If they give you a whole list of tasks ask them to prioritise them
- When asked to do something: find out details and, if possible, say you’ll get back to them before committing. Then, work out what the work involves; find out who else could be involved; and go back with an answer: ‘here’s what I can do’.
When your manager is more effective, so are you!
The number one lesson here is this: work gets far easier for you and your colleagues when you’re able to manage your boss. The result can also be a more effective manager. Every situation and every manager are unique so some of these suggestions will work better than others, whilst others may not work at all. The important thing is to realise the importance of finding ways to manage your boss which works for you both!