Monday, August 17, 2009

Six Skills for Managing Your Boss

I didn’t learn to appreciate the art of managing up until I first had the experience of managing down. One of the common surprises a new manager experiences is how much time you spend doing things for your employees. And when it comes to your employees doing things for you—well, I was so naïve when I first became a supervisor I actually thought that meant that people would do what I said.

How quickly we learn.

When I talk about “managing up,” people often think that’s something you do to your boss, that the goal is for the employee to get power over the boss. But that’s not the case. “Managing up” is something you do for your boss, and if you’re the boss, it’s something you wish more of your employees knew how to do.

At work—and at home, for that matter—we live inside a tightly woven web of mutual obligations. If you’re the boss, your employees are obligated to do certain work for you. And you normally have obligations in return: you review and approve and advise and decide. You go to bat. You run interference. You receive the passed buck. And occasionally you call for a Hail Mary play.

You have a similar relationship with your own boss, and he or she with his or her, and so ad infinitum. And that’s not even getting into the more complicated lateral relationships that cut across organizational boundaries.

Management, in a nutshell, is getting work done through the agency of other people. Whether those people actually report to you is largely irrelevant. You have to manage in three dimensions: up, down, and sideways. The official power you get as a supervisor or manager is never adequate to the task at hand. Ultimately, we’re all Blanche DuBois, from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire: we rely on the kindness of strangers.

We had better be good at it.

A few years ago, my wife Deborah and I researched and wrote a series of three books on the practical challenges of the workplace: Coping With Supervisory Nightmares, Enlightened Office Politics, and Managing UP! As we interviewed managers on what worked and what didn’t, we also looked back on our own careers. We had learned most of these lessons the hard way ourselves, many of them imperfectly, and more than a few we had missed altogether.

While the target audience of the book was new supervisors, we quickly learned that higher ranks of leadership were far more interested in the skills we had identified. That’s because we feel the need most keenly because we’re also on the other side.

Of course, you’ve long since learned the basics, but like us, you probably acquired your knowledge the way the cat learned to swim—by being thrown into the deep end. Even more importantly, you’ve learned what’s at stake.

Managing up isn’t just about taking care of your personal career, although it does. Managing up is the missing link in the relationships you need to run a large, complex organization in today’s crisis-prone environment.

To manage up effectively, you have to start with yourself and move outward. The first issue, the first rung on the ladder of MANAGING UP, is you: the self. A big part of your success in managing others, in whatever direction, comes from your own fundamentals: the quality of your work; the value of your word; and the content of your character

From the inward self, we move outward to style: our own and that of others. None of us checks our humanity at the door when we clock in. For better and for worse, human beings have personalities, preferences, and interests. Friction is unavoidable. Without lubrication, the machine grinds, and eventually freezes.

Style without substance, however, is insufficient. We begin our rise up the management ladder by demonstrating technical merit. But we quickly discover that there’s no such thing as a promotion, not really. Instead, each level is a career change, and we have to discover for ourselves what we need to be successful at the next level. The current age requires continuous learning: what do you need to know next? Where do you need to grow?

We can’t do it alone. We need systems in order to function effectively. Leaders are necessarily generalists; the higher you go the wider the set of skills and knowledge you need. Eventually you need to know everything, and that’s impossible. We feel we’re stuck in the Peter Principle trap, promoted to the level of our incompetence. But we can pull ourselves out. There are two ways out. Sometimes we have to acquire new skills and knowledge…or else we have to manage others to provide the work we need.

The word of the day is “team,” because none of us, it is said, is as smart as all of us. Sadly, sometimes the opposite is also true. Nothing is dumber than groupthink gone wild. The real synergy involves balancing the wisdom of the team with the wisdom of the individual. If “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’” it’s equally true that “you can’t spell ‘team’ without ‘m-e.’"

General rules will take us only so far. We have to apply our skills tactically as well as strategically. Managers manage problems as well as people—not to mention problem people—up, down, and sideways. Some bosses are harder to manage than others, and some live up to the old observation that “BOSS” spelled backwards is “double SOB.”

In an ideal world, you want your work environment to have certain characteristics, from the level of challenge and responsibility you desire to how you want to balance the demands of the office and the home. It's unlikely that happy accident alone will achieve what you want. Take responsibility for managing the relationship between you and your boss, you and your peers, and you and your worklife. You'll be much better off.

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