Being a manager of people isn’t just about looking downwards and ensuring your work teams are taken care of, have clear goals, and are happy in the workplace. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we all have somebody to report to, our own boss.
This paper is written with almost 40 years of working life, and hopefully some of these tips might help you, the newly appointed junior leader, as you begin to navigate the brutal game of corporate snakes and ladders, otherwise known as ‘management’.
I’ll be honest, managing upwards is a skillset that I still struggle with even today. As a leader, I worked hard on looking after my teams, I had great rapport with my peers, but as for my boss- I often made the same error in assuming they would be as interested in me, as I was with those who worked for me. I assumed, incorrectly, that I would be managed with the same care and diligence that I afforded those who reported through to me.
I recognise this is a wrong assumption, as it is just as important to manage upwards as it is to manage downwards. The people who work for you deserve a good working relationship between you and your boss. Nobody likes to work on a team when their manager is either on the outer, or in a hostile relationship with their boss. That helps nobody in the organisation, lowers morale and reduces productivity.
Having said that, I have had some outstanding bosses. People who really took the time to understand and inspire me to do greater things. I’d love to say that this was due to my excellent ability to manage upwards, but that would be lying. This was more due to their ability to manage downwards than any skill of my own. To those men and women, I thank them for their guidance and forbearance.
Here’s the first lesson of managing upwards, your boss isn’t going to change their ways to suit you.
No matter their leadership style, personality, interests, or dress sense – they are not going to change. They don’t have to, as they are your supervisor. You are going to have to modify your style to suit them. So, what does that mean?
1. Find out how they like to receive information.
Business communication is critical to the organizational wellbeing. If there is not free flowing transfer of information between parties, the workplace suffers. In any interaction between two people, if the receiver of the information doesn’t ‘get it’, the error will most likely lie with the information transmitter.
It is critical in your business dealings to understand how your boss prefers to receive communications. Do they like to hold meetings, or perhaps they enjoy the written word instead? Are they Aural or Visual as a person? If they are an introvert, they may have a preference to read reports, or use email; or if an extrovert, their preference may be loud robust meetings. Do they like the detail, or are they satisfied with ‘walk with me and give it to me in dot points’.
Too often, as their junior- we tend to transmit communication in the manner we prefer rather than understanding how our senior prefers to receive. I love to talk. People who know me will be nodding right about now. I love big open loud discussions, where everybody gets to speak, and we thrash out the problems in the meeting room. That works great for me, but not when I had a boss who used to manage me by email. He was the introvert, who didn’t enjoy my style at all. My mistake? I used to transmit to him in my preferred style of reception. He became irritated and –stopping me mid-sentence- would ask me to send him a report. I became irritated as I saw this as unnecessary rework, and could not understand why he wouldn’t just listen to what I had to say to him, in a loud robust fashion. You already know how this working relationship ended, don’t you?
If you have an important message to deliver to your manager, and you need it to be heard, then make sure it’s done using the style of reception they prefer.
2. What is their Agenda?
Making sure you are aligned with your manager’s objectives & goals is important for you, your team and the organisation. How would you feel if one of your team decided that it was ok to pursue their own agenda, and focus on a work area that didn’t fit with your own goals? Aligning with your boss is critical for the workplace to function correctly. It’s also good to understand what your manager’s manager (two up) is trying to achieve with the business. If you know the bigger picture or the company vision, you may be able to seize that opportunity that your boss may miss in the white noise of their own job.
Once you think you know what your manager’s priorities are, test for alignment. Feed back to them, in your own words, what you think is their agenda. This all sounds like a no-brainer. However, I am always surprised to speak with junior or middle managers who can’t identify their manager’s five top priorities for the year, or have not read their senior’s business strategy document. At the same time, these same junior/middle managers expect their own priorities to be known by their staff!
If you can understand what keeps your manager awake at night, and you are trying to find ways to help them sleep better, you are on the right track. A really good way to find out is to ask them that question.
3. You are not their friend.
No matter how well you get on with your boss, this is a working relationship. In the same way that your staff are not your friends, you cannot expect your boss to keep this to any more than a professional relationship. At some point, you are going to make a mistake. It’s a sign of your humanity, and also of you trying to be innovative. Depending on the impact or result of your mistaken decision, this may place your boss in the position of having to take disciplinary action against you. They cannot afford to be your friend when this occurs, as they are the individuals with this burden of responsibility.
Once, whilst trying to move an incredibly slow business action along, I wrote to the CEO of a customer organisation. This was way outside of my pay grade or responsibility. My action, although done with good intent, compromised both my boss and the CEO, and almost cost the company our largest account. I was fired for sending this letter. In fact I had to be, as the customer had requested it, and was going to terminate the account if I wasn’t removed.
My point being is that I liked my boss. I respected him and the CEO as well. I got on well with both and we had done good work together. However, even though we were friendly with each other, we could never be considered friends. My boss had to undertake an unpleasant action, which would’ve been incredibly difficult if he had chosen to be my friend.
The reverse is also true, you are not in your position of management to simply cosy up to the boss and be a ‘yes man’. There will be times when your leader needs to be called out for an action or decision that does not reflect the business needs, values or goals. Your team needs you to be able to defend them with your boss. If you are friends, you may find it difficult to cross this line. A robust professional relationship based on respect will always withstand a hard conversation. Keep the discussion professional, stick to the facts, and- if you are right- stand your ground. Both your manager and your team will think better of you.
4. Solutions Not Problems.
I’d just been elevated from junior management in the mid 1980’s, and was unburdening the many problems of the organisation onto my boss, when he turned to me and said ‘well, what are you going to do about it?’ To me, this was one of those moments when you realise you are no longer one of the junior staff. I’d been promoted because I could solve problems, not declare them. As a member of the junior staff, it was our right to complain about the company. Which we did, moaning all the time. I was no longer in their ranks.
As a manager, you’ve been promoted to identify the issues, and to solve them. If the responsibility to solve the problem lies above you, make sure you take solutions as well as the issue to that person. If you can, take the time to think of alternative solutions. Even if your boss selects a course of action that is none of your offered solutions, they’ll respect that you have taken the time to think about the problem and how to solve it.
5. No Surprises.
No matter the size of the issue, the cost incurred, the loss of the customer- if the issue has occurred on your shift, either by you or a member of your team- you are the one who informs your boss. Don’t cover it up, and don’t let them find out through any other means. Gather as much information as you can, start formulating solutions, and speak to your boss at the first most appropriate moment. A decade ago, I had the unfortunate situation where we had a workplace death. The supervisor called me at 3am. I called my boss, and then the CEO shortly after. If it’s really bad news, it cannot travel fast enough up the line. Nobody wants to hear bad news, but they’d rather they hear it from you.
As a manager, this is how you build trust with your boss. The only surprise your manager enjoys comes at birthdays. Depending on their age, they may not even enjoy those surprises!
6. Set Boundaries.
This may appear odd, however it’s important for you to set boundaries with your boss. If your boss is micro managing you, if they are reaching through you to direct your people, if they are doing your job for you, or worse- they are totally ignoring you- you need to set boundaries with them.
This can be a very difficult and uncomfortable action to do with your manager. However, if you feel you are being overstepped, it’s important to raise the matter with your manager. Sometimes, they may be doing it out of habit. It’s a safe place for them to work at your level, as it’s an activity they know well. Perhaps, they are not sure of your capability and in an honest attempt at protecting you, so they work at your level. Whatever the reason, it is very important for you to set the boundaries with your boss so that you both know where the other party’s responsibilities begin.
One last boundary that you must set in stone, is to resist participating in office politics/gossip. It’s important that you have open conversations about issues or problems in the workplace with your boss. It’s important that you fight for your team. However, if the decision is made against you or your team- accept it. You have had your chance to discuss the problem in the appropriate forum. Do not take back your anger or disappointment to the team, when you take back the bad news. Remain loyal to your manager, and stay above the politics. You’ll find that you’ll be better respected and you’ll probably keep your job longer!
As a junior/middle level manager, trying to work with your boss for the common good of the business can be a fantastic experience. Conversely, this can also be the hardest period of your working life. The junior front-line manager or supervisor who has to work beside the team, eat with them, and still pass on the difficult information- without a doubt this is the hardest level of management. If you can master the ability to both manage your people, and manage your boss, you are well on the way to becoming an executive of the next generation.
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