Managing Your Boss: Your Biggest Job

Monday Apr 27th 2009 by Rob England
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Much attention is paid in IT these days to processes, with Operations Management, Change Management, and a raft of Something Managements. Perhaps the most important thing to manage is seldom mentioned: your boss.

Managing your manager is as important an activity as the function you are employed for, or managing your personal finances or your household. It should receive the same thought and effort.

Without Management Management, you have no control over the most important influence on your career; your boss. They write your reviews, set your pay, assign you work, decide your moves and leave. Without Management Management you are at the whim of that person. Think about that. It is seldom an attractive prospect (and you are very lucky if it is attractive).

The process of Management Management involves three strategic goals: look after yourself, look after your boss, and look after the organisation.

Look after yourself

In my work, I found many who had no awareness of their own situation and no plan or actions to protect and develop their career. Work is work: your first priority is to yourself and your family or other dependents. There has been any number of books and articles about putting yourself first, about work/life balance, about working to live not living to work. This is not the place to re-visit all that, but in the context of Management Management the main reasons we manage our manager are to protect that work/life balance and to nurture our career.

In order to look after yourself, the first step is to understand your boss: their KPIs (what is it they are measured on and answerable for?), what drives them (why do they come to work?), what turns them on (in a work context, of course). Also understand the context within which they operate: what the business is doing, what it wants, where they fit, what threats there are to you and to them. Develop some "corporate situational awareness":

What are the strategies of your organisation, both the official ones and the real ones what changes are coming, or are likely to be coming who is really in power, locally and at the top who are in the inner circles Second step is to make sure you are seen - don’t hide your light.

Technical people are appallingly bad at this, at least in the cultures I know. Don’t expect the formal processes to automatically generate recognition for you. Don’t expect your boss to do research to learn how clever and useful (and profitable) you are. When you do something good, tell someone. Tell everyone. Practice doing this humbly, discretely, but practice making sure people know. Especially your boss.

Third step is to let your boss know what you need. Don’t expect them to guess or find out (or care). If you can frame a deal, all the better: find a win-win, something in it for you and your boss. If you need something and there is no quid pro quo for your boss or the organisation, it will hardly be a high priority. Make it explicit (don’t leave things implied, don’t be circumspect) and remind them occasionally (without being annoying).

Once you have practices in place to be aware of your environment – especially your boss, to make others aware of you, and to communicate your needs to your boss, then you are ready to work toward the second goal…

Look after your boss

Give them what they want. You might have your own ideas about what is important and what the priorities should be, but consider who is paying you and what they are paying you for. If they are paying you to set the priorities then you probably don’t need this article. If setting priorities is in your job description, good for you. If it isn’t, better you work to your boss’s priorities not yours.

When it comes to review time and pay-setting time and promotion time, the person who gave most to the boss will be the one at the front of your boss’s mind. There are three ways to deliver to them: help deliver their KPIs, take away (or prevent) some pain, or make them look good.

If you have worked on the first goal well, you will know what your boss needs to deliver to their boss. If their number one KPI is to get a certain project in by end of year, or to cut costs by 10%, and you serve that up to them, it will never be forgotten.

A related deliverable is to realise what bugs them and make it better. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just as good as delivering on a KPI – it isn’t. But pulling a thorn will win points.

Don’t be precious about credit or glory – let them have it. They know they owe you.

Pay attention to their safety. Stop them doing the wrong thing: move sharp objects out of the way, redirect them. This is most effective if you can make it their idea.

Note what is not on this list: delivering to your own KPIs. That is just expected. If you do, you have done no more than your job. Your boss will like it but not particularly notice it.

People will say this is too Dilbertesque: that not all bosses are pointy-haired idiots. Indeed they are not, but what we are describing here is simple human nature. Even the nicest, most caring, most enlightened boss cannot help but subconsciously favour the person who made their job easier.

Besides, there are way more managers’ positions than there are good managers.

Look after your organisation Management Management may manipulate… um manage your boss to protect your own interests, but those interests must also align (to some extent) with the interests of the organisation. The more they don’t, the more you travel into areas which are ethically or legally questionable.

Secondly, as you work with your boss you have a responsibility to look at their actions that are not initiated or encouraged by you but nevertheless you are aware of them or a party to them. Is your boss doing what is good for the entity? At some point you have a responsibility to escalate an alert, but first try to redirect them as above.

Connect to them

Accept the reality: your manager is seldom going to come to you. You share their attention with how many other direct reports? Add in their peers, their boss and their customers and you can see you have to go get attention.

For a small number of you, you get on well with your manager as human beings: you have a friendly relationship. For the rest, in order to engage with your manager you may need to study up on communication models – how to connect.

There are several systems to better understand how to relate by profiling your manager (see my article on profiling). Take your pick from DISC®, Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument®, personality colours (red, green, yellow and blue), or Myers-Briggs among others.

Also study up on situational leadership. This has four modes of interaction: directing, coaching, supporting, delegating. Which mode is your boss in when dealing with you, and where do you want them to be? If there is a mismatch you can talk to them about it, and/or try to manage them into your preferred mode.

Developing your negotiation skills won’t hurt either.

And finally steep yourself in business understanding and language. I did it by subscribing to the Economist and the McKinsey Quarterly for several years.

There are those who see this as sucking up. If you see your role to be one where you do not co-operate with your boss, or you actively work against them, then you are in the wrong job. You are employed to be an effective agent of the organisation. For good or ill the organisation has decided that your boss is the one to direct you in that. Your goal should be to maximise the personal benefit of working for the organisation whilst also meeting the needs of that organisation. That benefit will be best when your boss sees you as their most valued employee.

You can change the system and you can work around your boss. But you will be more effective if you can manage your boss than if you are their biggest problem.

Rob England is an IT industry commentator and consultant, and nascent internet entrepreneur, best known for his blog The IT Skeptic. For a more facetious version of Management Management, see Rob’s satirical book "Introduction to Real ITSM" to learn about Keeping Away From Sharp Objects, Mopping Up The Mess, and Playing With The Car-keys.

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