Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Managing Up: Start with Your Boss

We all have bosses. Ok, there's some teeny percentage of you who are your own boss, and this does not apply to you unless you have some multiple personality thing you need to work on. That said, almost every one has a boss, and every one should realize that they have the ability to manage their boss the in the same way they have methods to manage other things in their lives.

You manage a bank account. If you're reading this, you manage people or you are a project manager and still, well, manage people (but without all the fun authority). You may be a person who wants to manage projects or people. You probably all have bosses.

In order to get to be a good manager in the workplace, you need to manage people above you, starting with your boss.

I have a an entry on Assumptions. A common assumption is about the nature of the manager/employee relationship. Unless this assumption is re-examined regularly and the type of relationship you both want is enforced, the manager/employee relationship doesn't get managed by YOU. It gets managed by Fate. Your boss might put the effort/energy into it to manage it (and good bosses, do), but you can't assume they will and you can't assume that if they do they have your best interests (career goals, needs, values) at heart if they do.

The basic assumption of the employee/manager relationship is that the manager will indicate work for the employee and the employee will do that work. Last week's post--about the four boxes--can kind of make you start to think about how this concept of communicating work and work being done could get complicated; not only does the maturity level of the employee factor in, but also the complexity of the work, the experience of the manager and the employee, and a ton of other variables that are independent in any situation.

If you've had your boss for ages and think you know how it works, or if you've just got this new boss, take some time and go over these expectations.

Easy to say, right? How do you ask what your boss expects of you when you worry that if you do that, he/she will think you ought to just know and get (at the very least) annoyed with you?

Well, that is pretty much lesson one in managing up: start with your boss.

0. Have an establishing meeting with your boss. Tell him/her that you are confirming your priorities and their expectations. Then go over what you're working on and what they expect from those deliverables; ie: what does a demo mean to them, so you aren't just relying on what a demo means to you.

1. If you don't have a regular weekly meeting (or every two week meeting) with your boss, ask for one, just to "check in." Most bosses will establish a weekly 1:1 exactly for this purpose, but some bosses don't. Do item 0 each time you meet.

2. Come to the meeting prepared. A lot of folks just show up to meet with their boss and sit their and let their boss direct the conversation. This is not a good idea. If your boss really only sees you once a week (other than in passing) and the only time he/she sees you he/she is directing the entire show...well, it looks like you're not as effective an employee. So come with questions you have saved up, a list of todo items in the order you think they ought to be prioritized, and a list of what you've done since the last time you two met.

3. If the boss has an agenda for the meeting, stick with it, but be sure to be prepared for the items on the agenda. My boss at my consulting firm likes to talk about my direct reports, any blocking issues, and the general work situation. So that's what I prep for.

4. If the boss doesn't have an agenda for the meeting, set one yourself, informally. When you come in, tell your boss you want to cover a, b and c, and then anything your boss wants to cover. This works especially well if you're worried your boss is annoyed with you/upset about a performance issue, as you get an opportunity to show how good you've been at a, b and c before they get a chance to talk to you about "that thing." Typically, it doesn't blunt the entire force of a previous screw up, but it certainly makes the whole thing a lot less awkward. Unless, of course, the boss REALLY wants to discuss that first; in which case talking from notes about a, b and c shows contrition and professionalism already starting to happen after your talk. I have also found that many of my bosses think of things as the meeting goes on, and they can make their own list to discuss after I'm done with my items.

5. Keep your performance review/bonuses/promotions/etc in mind. Lots of places have set goals on which you have to deliver in order to get a good performance review or a raise, or a bonus, or whatever. Often people go over these twice a year: when they're first established and when you're going over them for the performance review/bonus/etc. This is not terribly helpful if you want to do WELL on those goals. Talk to your boss about concrete tasks to complete to meet those goals, and then measure your performance against those tasks about once a month in a meeting with your boss--verify you are where you think you are on those goals. Next, after that meeting WRITE UP what you both just discussed and send it to your boss to verify/confirm and correct. Keep a copy of these write ups and any replies from your boss in a file and bring them out at performance/bonus/etc. time.

6. Get to know your boss. Yeah, you have 1:1's, but chit chat. Pay attention when he/she is making decisions in meetings. Try to learn the way your boss thinks so that, if you are the only one in a room able to represent him/her and your team, you can speak up for him/her (as appropriate).

A hypothetical example: as a project manager you may get invited to a lot of tech support meetings related to one of your projects; tech support may own the software, but your group uses it, too. Tech support proposes a change to the way the software works; you're in the meeting and your boss is not. What do you do? You speak up for your boss and your team according to what you think your boss would like. The only way to do that is invest in finding out what your boss likes.

In the same hypothetical example, after the meeting, rush to your boss or write him/her an email of what happened. If you're REALLY not sure how your boss will react, delay the decision or let them know that they will need to run it past your boss. If they opt not to do so, you can include that in your email to your boss and you've done your duty for your team.

This item, 6, is also about knowing how your boss will react if you end up reacting for your boss. I, for example, am a control freak; if someone acts the way I'd want to act, I'm happy, but if they don't, my control freakiness comes down like a dark cloud and rains all over everything. You don't want a dark cloud raining on you from your boss. So talk to your boss: let them know under what circumstances you might need to think about what they think about and react accordingly, and their preferred method of your handling things; if they want you to wait and check every decision by them, do it. If they want you to handle it, do it. But make sure your boss is on board and that, whenever it happens, you immediately inform them.

7) Admit when you screw up, then don't screw up like that again. Your boss needs to trust you and depend on you, so when you make recommendations to him or her, you will be listened to as the expert you are. You will make mistakes. Don't hide them. They never stay hidden, and if they come to your boss from anyone other than you, they sound SO MUCH WORSE than if you told your boss yourself. Then do your damndest to not make that same mistake twice. You need to show you are a learning human being and you can be trusted, and you know, you're boss will trust you.

Once you've started these steps, and know what the boss expects of you (both when he/she is around and not), your boss will also know that you know; which means it easier to take your advice. It's easier to understand your point of view. It's easier to break the isolation of the "do it because you're the employee" and make it more "let me know what you think because you're the one who does the work." Feel free to offer suggestions--not all the time, not annoyingly, and not about things you aren't 80% or more sure on.

Controlling communication with your boss, what to expect in the relationship and having a free hand to offer suggestions and advice is the groundwork for managing your boss. You get the other benefits of this process of a) knowing what is expected of you and b) enjoying your time (or at least not dreading it) with your boss.

Once you've got a handle on managing your boss, managing peers and further up the food chain goes a lot easier. But that's a topic for another day.

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