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Could Not ‘Managing Up’ Be Cramping Your Career?

There’s a whole lot of noise about how to lead your direct reports. And this is a good thing. The world would be a better place if bosses bossed better.  But there’s one area of leadership that’s often overlooked. 

How to manage up successfully.

What do I mean by ‘managing up’? 

‘Managing up’ means consciously working with your direct manager (and sometimes even his or her boss as well) to get the best possible outcome for you, your team, your manager and the organisation as a whole.

In my role as an executive coach, I’ve seen capable executives fail because they don’t do this well. 

I’ve also seen the opposite. Less capable managers succeed because they’re exceptional at it.

Now, you might be thinking, “No way Jose! That ‘managing up’ malarkey is playing the political game and I don’t do politics.” You’re certainly not about sucking up. And I hear you. 

No one wants to be labelled a sucker-upper-er.

The thing is, this isn’t about political maneuvering. It’s about leadership effectiveness.

Recent studies suggest, effective managers take time and effort to not only manage relationships with their team members, but also those with their managers.

So here are some do’s and don’ts from The Leader’s Digest to help you manage your relationship with your boss, well… like a Boss:

DON’T…

DON’T assume you know what your manager’s objectives are, or what they’re ‘hot on’. In fact, don’t assume anything at all, especially when you first start working with them. 

You know that saying, ‘to assume makes an ass out of you and me’? Well, that definitely applies here. And as the one with less positional power, you’re more likely to come off worse in the ‘ass stakes’. Be purposeful and curious about their pressures, goals and needs..

DON’T forget they’re human too. They have weaknesses, blind spots and pressures you may not know about (or even they might not know about). Don’t fall prey to the fundamental attribution error  – a nasty leadership gremlin which attributes poor outcomes as issues with their character. 

DON’T have unrealistic expectations when it comes to gaining support and clarity from your manager. Some are exceptional at this. Many are not.

Ask explicitly for the clarity, information and support you need to nail your job.

DON’T leave managing the relationship with your manager up to chance. Like most important relationships in your life, you’ve got to be a bit purposeful in cultivating it if you want it to flourish.

Doing nothing to feed the relationship – or neglecting to explore up front how you’re going to work together effectively – is a big risk with such a pivotal professional relationship.

DON’T assume they like to communicate in the same way you do – or in the same way as your former boss did. One leader I worked for would love to talk things through, ‘riff’ and gather information by listening. I learnt never to bother sending him an agenda before a meeting. He’d never read it. He was an “Expressive” in the Social Styles model  (which I provide training on, BTW :-)).  

But another boss I had, liked to have the information sent to him prior to our meeting so he could digest and mull it over before discussing it. He was an Analytical in the Social Styles model. Springing something on him was definitely NOT the best way to communicate, as I found out pretty quickly! He’d much prefer to digest information by reading rather than listening. He WORSHIPED agendas. The mere idea of ‘off the cuff riffing’ was likely to send him into a spin. 

So what are the DO’s of Managing Up? How can you create a gold star relationship with your boss?

DO find out what their goals, objectives and pressures are. Ask questions like, “What are the things that you are measured on? What are your goals for our team? What keeps you awake at night?” This is metaphorical, although sometimes it’s literal!

Knowing what is taking up your boss’s head space helps you determine her (and your) priorities. It also provides an opportunity to better focus your efforts on helping her achieve those goals and priorities. 

DO recognise the somewhat symbiotic nature of this relationship. It might not occur to you, but your boss needs your help and cooperation to do his or her job well, just as much as you do.

Merely acknowledging this fact may provide a shift in your mental model and approach in terms of how you interact with them.

DO assume responsibility for your own needs and development. Seek the information and help you need to do your job well, instead of waiting for your boss to provide it.

DO front foot any career discussions or aspirations at the right time. Let them know where you would like to develop and ask them to help you close the gaps.

DO have conversations up front about HOW you’re both going to work together effectively. Explore topics like your preferred communication styles, decision making and operating rhythms.

How often will you meet for your one on ones?
What will you cover in them?
How will you both provide feedback to each other?
Where do you need help and support and where do you feel more confident?

Once again, some leaders are better at this than others. But if they’re not forthcoming in these crucial discussions, don’t wait and complain. There’s nothing stopping you front footing them in a way that spells out the benefits to them.

DO work at building a trusting relationship. Assume the 51% rule. Be honest and upfront.  Keep them well informed of what you are doing. Give them early warning when things are turning pear shaped.

DO be cognisant of their time – and don’t waste it. Be prepared for meetings. Come to them with potential solutions and options, not just the problem. Be proactive. 

DO ask colleagues who have worked with your boss (or others within the organisation who work with them regularly), “What is the best way to work with this person? What do they value? What are their ‘bug bears’?”

Watch who your boss rates and respects – and watch what they do. 

Don’t cramp your career, just because you haven’t ‘managed up’ as well as you could.

What has worked for you when it comes to managing up? What tips do you have for building and maintaining a solid relationship with your boss? Any big mistakes you’ve made? I would love to hear from you – let me know your thoughts below. 

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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