There are a few ways to think about the word ‘manage’. According to Google, one meaning is “to be in charge of, administer, oversee” – which seems to imply that the person doing the manager has some direct control over the situation – being ‘the boss’, so to speak. An alternative meaning; however, is “to maintain control or influence over”. The source of the authority in this definition seems more ambiguous – influence in particular is based on something other that direct authority.
When we talk about management, we often think about the first definition – being in charge of something – a team, project, department. However, none of us – even upper managers – are truly at the top of the ladder – most of us have a ‘superior’ to contend with – be it our own manager/boss, a board, or a client. In these cases, we need to lean more heavily into the alternate meaning of ‘manage’ – to maintain some degree of control or, more importantly, influence – even when the organizational chart might state otherwise.
How do we do this? As with all things, recognize that your ‘boss’ is an individual, like you, trying to do a (perhaps difficult) job, like you, and deserves the same respect we would extend to anyone. Then, given the unique dynamic of the relationship, implement these tips and practices:
Listen First. Understand your boss’ position and what he/she is trying to achieve. Know their drivers, KPIs, and strategic goals. Ultimately, what your boss asks of you will align with these – certainly that should be their goal. Understanding why they are asking what they are asking will make it easier for you to get behind the objectives you’ve been handed. Additionally, when you feel you should pursue a course different to what they have laid out for you, you will be able to position this new course in terms of their benefit and how it will more effectively deliver what they are asking. In some ways, we need to think of our boss as a client – someone whose satisfaction with what we deliver will be our ultimate measure of success. As with a client, understand their pain points and know that a big part of your job is to solve them.
Never complain without a solution. Success in business is success in problem-solving, and the employees who stand out are the ones that can not only identify problems (this is the easy part), but can propose reasonable and workable solutions to these problems. An example – clients are complaining to you about slow delivery times for products (and you have no direct control over delivery). Don’t just tell your boss that you are getting complaints – propose some courses of action he/she could take to address the issue – do you need to warehouse to keep you advised of stock levels so you can better set expectations? Do you need an additional supplier to fill demand? And further – what can you do to help your boss set these solutions in motion – can you run numbers and create a report that would enable him/her to make a convincing argument, or can you offer to reach out to the warehouse to understand the issue from their point of view? Your solution may not be the right one – but the effort shows your manager that you are on their team, you are being proactive, and you are ultimately making their life easier, not harder – valuable traits for any employee.
A side note: coming with solutions does NOT mean hiding problems. If a project has run off-course and you don’t have a solution yet, flag the issue with your boss and let them know what you are doing to find the solution. They may be able to help, and at least you won’t be catching them off-guard if the problem becomes more than you can manage alone.
Don’t be afraid to challenge them – but recognize that it’s ultimately their call. Challenging your manager (in a respectful way) can be a highly valuable act, helping them think through their rationale for decisions – and protecting them from a similar challenge coming from the top (also, because you are not directly responsible, you may have an advantageous position for making decisions they can benefit from [link to decision making post]. A good manager will appreciate an intelligent challenge that helps them to think and act more effectively, while minimizing their exposure to mistakes. However, having made your challenge, recognize that the decision is theirs (along with the liability for getting it wrong) and your job is to the do the best you can with the directives they give you. It goes without saying, if your course of action would have been more effective (or is implemented after another strategy goes awry), “I told you so” is not a useful sentiment to express (either directly or by implication). See the success as your teams.
Learn what you can. In some cases, even the best managing up strategies will not work. Not every manager is a great manager. In this case, learn what you can – know that they are in that role for a reason, be it some technical expertise, political acumen, etc., and figuring this out will give you insights into how to navigate the hierarchy of your company. Even if you have a ‘bad boss’, it is always in your best interest to view the situation as a learning experience, if only learning what not to do, what doesn’t work, and how to be resilient in less-than-ideal circumstances. (It goes without saying that this does not include harassment and ill-treatment – if those lines are crossed, it’s time to speak with HR.)
To the extent we must work with others, everyone is a manager of the people around them. Managing up requires a combination of empathy, tact, and intentionality, but is a critical tool in your career toolbelt.
In my next post, we’ll look at another management challenge – managing resources that you don’t actually manage. Stay tuned.