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Managing your leader Published: Sunday, October 20, 2013 12:01 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

If you are a manager at any level, you have to think about managing both up and down the organizational ladder. That is not only recommended but required if you are to succeed, for organizations are not only rational systems, but also emotional and even political as well. Some managers pay attention to managing either their own “bosses” or those people who report to them. It is the managers who only manage up who give managing the boss a less-than-stellar reputation. They appear to be the suck-ups or toadies; subordinates assume they don’t care about them and may withhold their respect or slack off in their work. On the other hand, the ones who only manage down can’t advocate for their team or gain buy-ins for the project’s endeavors from those up the chain. Successful managers and professionals pay attention to managing both directions and communicating with their peers.

Unless people in organizations practice true collaboration upwards as well as in all other directions, they are prompt to make mistakes that could jeopardize critical results. Everyone has to learn key strategies to cope with the reality that power and formal authority are not distributed evenly among organizational members. The balance between speaking truth to power and effectively creating understanding, collaboration and mutually beneficial working routines are all part of a fine art that characterizes effective professionals. Let me share with the reader some basic but proven strategies to achieve that kind of productive relationship with leaders upstairs.

  • Be honest and trustworthy. Dishonesty, covering up problems or failures, and trying to sweep things under the rug will only hurt you and your project in the long run. The truth will come out eventually. Bad news doesn’t get any better with age. A key element in managing your leader is building trust by being trustworthy. Most people are dependable, hardworking, and have a desire to do a good job, but because of misunderstandings or mismatched priorities, some end up inappropriately labeled as problem children. Always maintain your honesty and dependability. One way of doing this is honoring commitments, project schedules, constraints, and, whenever necessary, re-negotiating requirements in time.
  • Communicate. And make sure the communication is two- way. Good communications skills are the basis for being able to succeed in almost every situation. Communication with your leader can be verbal or written. If you want your ideas to be heard, understood, and acted upon, make it easy by communicating in the manner with which he is most comfortable. But make sure that the communication is two-way.
  • Understand your leader’s needs, perspective and agenda. That way, you can align your priorities with you’re his/her priorities. Put yourself in his shoes. While many people think that they have an understanding of their leader’s goals and pressures, they don’t always understand the strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and work styles of their supervisors, or the pressures and constraints on them. Exploring these will help you identify commonalities you never knew existed and gain a little insight on how to better interact effectively with them. Understand your leader’s preferences and try to conform to them.
  • Provide solutions. There are going to be problems with your assignments. Every project has them. But when you let your leader know about those problems, give him your proposed solution(s). That shows him that you have thought the situations through. There are supervisors who seem to want to hear only good news; they don’t want to hear about problems. Those bosses represent a particular challenge. It is up to you to help your boss face problems head on with courage and innovation. For the good of the project and the organization, you must communicate problems and failures with the successes, but do so delicately and appropriately. That’s when providing him/her proposed solutions to the problems can really pay off.
  • Avoid surprises. Even good surprises can backfire on you. Let her know what is happening with the project on a regular basis so that she can brief her boss. It may be a quick meeting in her office; a daily, weekly, or monthly e-mail; or some other exchange. Full-blown interim progress reports (formal meetings to discuss the project status) on a regular schedule can help make sure that neither of you is surprised.
  • Be intelligently loyal and committed. Demonstrate that you feel as part of the same team. Execute thoroughly on those things that have been agreed upon while you keep the debate and challenges on ideas to positively influence your leader and jointly make optimum decisions. 
  • Understand your own management style and take responsibility for its effect on others. Developing an effective working relationship with your leader requires that you understand yourself and your management style. Recognize your own strengths, weaknesses, goals, and personal needs; how you respond to being managed; and how others respond to you. Be aware of the effect that you have on others and their reaction to you, especially those under you. If you don’t, you could be in for a surprise when you meet with the boss, especially at appraisal time.
  • Know your leader’s strengths and use them. You need to determine his strengths. Whether those strengths are communication, seeing the big picture, resource management, new ideas, or something else, go to “your boss” for his expertise. Get him to use his particular skills for the project. Remember, though, that time is a precious commodity for most managers. Effectively managing your boss requires that you respect his time. Every request made uses up his time and resources, so make sure your requests are necessary. Use his strengths, but if you can do it yourself, don’t waste his time.
  • Recognize your boss’s weaknesses and compensate for them. He/she is not going to be good at everything. It is up to you to figure out where she’s weak and provide your support in those areas. You might just want to intentionally try doing something to make life easier for your leader. Be aware of your manager’s hot buttons and pet peeves. Is it being late to meetings or not contributing, sloppy memos or e-mails, swearing, a loud radio? Sounds obvious, but whatever they are, consider them land mines to be avoided.
  • Request feedback—and learn to accept it. Request periodic feedback if you aren’t getting it. Don’t wait for the annual appraisal to find out the boss’s opinion of you and your work. If you get bad feedback, discuss your concerns, but do it on a mature level, not emotionally or confrontationally. As in a marriage, the best approach is non-adversarial. Listen to what he says and try to act on it.

Managing up is a way to have a win-win-win situation where everyone, including the organization you and the organization win. Failure to manage the leader can result in misunderstandings about expectations and cause wasted time and effort on tasks not in line with organizational goals or the project’s needs. And looking at it from a purely self-serving perspective, career progress rarely happens if you don’t manage “your boss” successfully.

Too many people perceive that managing up is brownnosing or trying to curry favor with the boss. They consider it manipulative. But it’s not. Managing up is one of the tools to engender success.


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