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Managing, Not Kissing Up

Posted Nov 16 2009 10:02pm

Endless articles, books and seminars are devoted to building the skills necessary to be a great manager, with the purpose of helping managers get the best results out of their people. But what about getting the best results out of your manager? Whether you have an absolutely fantastic relationship with your boss, or you’re pretty sure your boss thinks that you’re a mystical being from the planet MS Vista whose soul source of nourishment is derived from creating PowerPoint slides, the relationship is a two way street, and you have at least some influence over how it works. What follows are not tips on how to get your nose as far up your manager’s rear as possible (I’ve saved that for my upcoming article entitled “Smokescreen: How to Turn Incompetence Into Opportunity” – kidding of course) – but rather, some simple ways to give your manager the thousand-and-one things they need, all while showcasing your strengths.

  1. Learn their communication style and use it!
    In a perfect professional world, your manager has taken the time to understand and accommodate your communication style, but I realize that might not be the case, so here’s your chance to be the bigger communicator! Pay attention to your manager’s behaviors. Do they tend to talk through things in order to come to a decision, or do they get as much information as they can, think about it for a while and then get back to you? Do they like to have a lot of information so that they can come to their own conclusions, or do they want complex situations summed up neatly? Do they like frequent updates on progress, or are they happy to let you do your own thing? All of these are signals about their communication style. Pay attention to these as well as other cues and try adapting your style to theirs. It may seem like you’re bearing the brunt of the sacrifice here, but I guarantee you’ll be happier in the end. A little bit of attention and accommodation will reduce some high-level friction you may be experiencing, and you may even find that you understand each other better.
  2. Where there’s a problem – you’ve got a solution!
    This seems like a no-brainer but it bears repeating: don’t go to your boss with a problem if you don’t at least have some recommendation on how to attack it. If you have a recommendation, great! Make that recommendation clear by explaining your rationale. If you’re not sure what the solution is, gather enough information to recommend a next step. Your boss may or may not take you up on your recommendation, but you’ve just killed two birds with one stone: first, you’re giving your boss a heads up on a problem along with a possible course of action – this helps them with their job. Second, you’ve demonstrated that you’re a proactive problem-solving super star! OK, so the super star part won’t happen right away but take this approach time after time and watch the magic happen.
  3. Keep them in the loop
    We’ve already talked about communication style – this brings us to making sure the lines of communication are open. The best way to do this is to ensure that you and your manager have some regular method of checking in with one another. When everyone is working at full throttle, sufficient communication can fall to the wayside. My recommendation is to have weekly one-on-one meetings with your manager. Schedule an hour; sometimes that will be too long – others, it won’t be enough – but it creates a forum devoted to sharing information. If you propose this and your boss says no way, try a weekly (or some other regular frequency that works) update email. I learned this from a manger I used to work for – she seriously kicked my butt with work but man alive did I learn a lot from that woman! She worked on several clients and wasn’t physically working in the same place I was most of the time. So she recommended (when she recommended something, it was usually a good idea) that I send her a daily email (probably excessive if you work in the same location with your boss) that provided the following information: what I’m working on, potential issues, what I owe you and when to expect it, and what I need from you. That’s how it was organized.

    When I left that client and started working for a new manager, I tried this with them and they were pleased as punch to receive this information. They said it made their job so much easier and it gave me instant credibility. This also made my job easier because it gave me a forum to bring up issues and ask for help. So find a way to communicate regularly, make sure the method works for your boss and then stick to it. I think you’ll find that your boss, if they don’t already, will see you as someone who is on top of things and transparent about your accomplishments and where you need their support.

  4. Make sure they’re the first to know
    When something goes wrong, you see something moving in the wrong direction, or you realize that you’re going to slip on a deadline, this isn’t the time to procrastinate. See above (Where there’s a problem – you’ve got a solution) and make sure your boss is the first to know. While it’s tempting to hunker down – hoping things will blow over while fretting to your colleagues – you don’t want your boss hearing about the problem from someone else. By bringing it to their attention swiftly, you’re demonstrating accountability, respect and loyalty. Although there may be repercussions for whatever happened, you’re giving your manager the information they need to help you handle the situation in a timely way. If you’re quick to reveal problems to your manager first, time after time, this will help build trust and I think we can agree that strengthening trust will help you both, in addition to making your working relationship more pleasant.

These are just a few ways to manage up. Will they wash away the remnants of a bad working relationship? No. Like I said, it’s a two way street, but doing these things might help you and your boss find common ground. You’ll be providing your manager with the information they need to make informed decisions and at the same time, you’ll be demonstrating some really terrific qualities. Finding more ways to show how competent you are can only lead to good things.

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