Manage your manager

You may have a boss. It might be the first line manager, director, vice president, CEO, or a board of directors.

The common logic is that the manager manages the team. The employee also needs to manage her/his manager.

The manager may have a position power over you. That doesn’t mean you just follow orders.

Sucking up

Managing higher up has a certain negative connotation.

Sucking up really means that you are the “yes man”. You are doing everything in your power to please the boss, to appear in the best light, and earn some plus points. Your hope is that by being favorite “pet” you will gain some privileges not available to others who don’t suck up.

It comes to then, that Managing higher up is about setting boundaries and rules on how you and your manager work together, an ability to talk to your boss as an equal.

She/he is your partner in getting the work done and in fulfilling company’s mission.

It is about agreement,

  • how you stay in dialog
  • set priorities
  • keep each other informed
  • you hold each other accountable
  • understanding the needs of the other person
  • helping them to achieve their goals

Setting boundaries

The first thing to do is to sit with your manager and talk about how you will work together.

  • Understand how your boss works
  • What are her/his general expectations in terms of updates, reports, escalations
  • Clarify the level of details she/he wants to be involved in
  • Whether she/he wants to be informed when you need to talk to her/his management or to other departments
  • Agree on “no surprises” rule

Nothing is more embarrassing for your boss when she/he is being confronted by her/his manager with something you have done and she/he has no clue.

You should also talk about how you work and whether it is compatible with your manager’s expectations. Especially in today’s hectic environment, you should clarify what level of availability and responsiveness is expected. The boundaries conversation also needs to tackle the topic of feedback. How you give each other feedback – work related or developmental.

This may be tough to do on the very first meeting but it is important to indicate that you appreciate any feedback your manager is willing to give you and that you are also available to provide feedback when asked.

Communication rules

Important to agree on how your manager expects to communicate with you.

Each of us is used to different communication channels, may have different way how we receive and process information, and may be used to different way of communication from previous job or even from other colleagues.

It is important to agree with your manager on what communication channel is preferred for what information. For example, you may agree that normal updates are best over emails to read at her/his own leisure, but any escalations or concerns should be communicated face to face or over the phone. This agreement is extremely important when you have a remote boss, and hyper important when he or she sits in a different time zone.

Never agree to not communicate!

You should be very flexible and adjust to the needs of your boss with one big exception. Never agree to not communicate! You need to build a solid relationship and that will not happen when you or your boss are avoiding interactions. If your manager says that there is no reason to talk regularly, insist on it anyway.

You can appeal to her/his ego by asking for help, acknowledging you can learn from her/him, or just state plainly that it would help you grow and you feel a regular contact will help build good relationship between two of you.

If you talk with your boss only when there are problems your relationship will have a significantly negative undertone. You need to take 100% responsibility for making the relationship work.

I personally have a tendency to over-communicate with my managers so the conversation I would have with any new boss is along the lines, “I’m used to copying my boss on all emails that may be eventually brought to your attention. I don’t necessarily expect you to read them, but I want to make sure you have them available if your manager or someone from other departments asks. If I need your help I will specifically indicate that in the subject of the email. Does this work for you?”

Goals, priorities and check-points

Having clearly set goals, understood priorities, and agreed upon check-points is critical for healthy, surprise free, working relationship.

Asking for help

One of the key things your boss can do for you is to remove obstacles. The only time when they should step in is to remove roadblocks so you can achieve the agreed goals.

This means that you need to have a clear understanding with your boss about what level of issues she/he can help you with. It can be a very general statement along the lines of “when you run into something you can’t figure out let me know and I will help you.”

It can be also something much more specific, “once you are ready to present the proposal to the CEO let me know so we review it together and then I can help you by pushing it from my side.”

The key is to have a clearly stated agreement with your manager that it is fine to ask for help and it won’t be held against you.

Offering help

To paraphrase JFK “don’t ask what your manager can do for you, ask what you can do for him”. Why? Good relationships are all about trust.

How do you build trust? Make sure that the other person sees that you have her/his wellbeing on top of your mind. If you accomplish that, she/he will reciprocate.

When your boss sees that you are willing to help her/him solve problems it dramatically increases the trust in you. She/he will trust your skills, your loyalty, and ultimately will find you indispensable.

When you are indispensable you are in much better negotiation position to get what you need. When you can easily show the value you provide, it has a direct impact on your ability to get the next interesting project, the next promotion, the raise, or the freedom to work the way you want.

You don’t need to do much.

Just asking whether there is anything you can help with, will do the trick.

Get clues from what was discussed or what you already know your manager is working on and ask if you can help with that specific problem. In long-term, the best approach is to ask about her/his priorities.

You don’t need to wait on anyone to give you these opportunities. It is you, who is enabling this growth for yourself!

The beautiful side effect of this practice is that you are getting opportunities to do parts of your manager’s job and that allows you to learn new skills and expand your job. Say, it allows you grow.

The next time you have a conversation with your manager don’t talk only about your needs and what you need from him. Before you end the conversation just ask a simple question “is there anything I can help you with?”


Suresh Shah, Pathfinders Enterprise

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