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How to boost your career by successfully managing your boss

01 Jun, 2020 Careers, Managing upwards, PR management, Proving PR value, Workplace relationships

‘Managing upwards’ is the systematic process of working with your boss to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss and your organization. When you manage upwards, you show leadership on your own part.

Most people know the importance of managing their relationships with the people who report to them, but you would be surprised at the number of people who forget to manage their most important working relationship – the one with their boss. Everyone has a boss, but all too often people don’t think of acting systematically to reap the benefits from working at this relationship.

Just think for a moment about the bosses you have had and what you actually did or didn’t do to strengthen your working relationship with them. We all fall into a pattern of behavior and tend to repeat it over time – mistakes and all!

You have a great opportunity to ensure your relationship with your boss is positive and productive. It’s in both your interests to maintain a good professional understanding with plenty of communication.

If you actively manage your relationship, your boss will be more supportive when the time comes for performance reviews and salary reviews. You could be fast-tracking your career!

Treat your boss as your key stakeholder

One of your most important jobs if you are a supervisor or manager is to support your own boss. In the chain of command, leaders must always present a united front to the truths. A public display of discontent or disagreement with the chain of command undermines the authority of leaders at all levels. This can cause major problems to the performance of an organization.

Your immediate boss can play a critical role in linking you to the rest of the organization, making sure your priorities are consistent with organizational needs, and in securing the resources you need to perform well. Don’t see yourself as practically self-sufficient, in not needing the critical information and resources your boss can supply.

Ensure your work anticipates your boss’s needs and expectations. Clarify what your boss expects from you. Ask direct questions like, “What are your priorities for me?” and “What criteria should I take into account when making decisions?” And find out how your boss prefers to work with you, including how often you two should meet and when they expect you to be reachable by email and phone. Knowing these expectations now could save you headaches in the future.

Your best approach is to manage the relationship through a stakeholder relations management strategy. You can take specific actions to strengthen the relationship with your direct boss. Your boss may be the CEO, a vice-president, a general manager or other senior manager. Perhaps your boss is the head of the communication function. As an effective professional you need to commit the time and effort to develop a sound relationship with your boss that meets the needs of you both.

Your ability at small talk makes a big impression on your boss

Small talk may not seem to be overly important, but it is the foundation for almost every other type of conversation. Most people engage in it every day, although to do it well is not as easy as it might seem. Small talk is light, informal conversation that takes place when we are speaking face-to-face with others, and through channels like phone conversations and even social media. Therefore, we need to be good at both. Such soft skills are crucial in business – and especially with your boss. When done well, small talk shows:

  • You communicate well with others (especially important with your boss)
  • You show empathy and support towards them
  • You listen actively to them
  • You have respect for them
  • You are strengthening your relationship with them.

These are some of the important ways you can conduct small talk with your boss:

  • Prepare if possible
  • Ask questions
  • Praise them
  • Behave as though you like them
  • Actively listen
  • Body language
  • Smile.

Read my article, “How you can master small talk and make a big impression,” for some great tips on making a good impression when you engage in small talk with your boss.

Checklist for managing your boss

Professors John Gabarro & John Kotter provided this useful checklist in their 2005 Harvard Business Review article about “Managing your Boss“:

Make sure you understand your boss and their context, including their:

  • Goals and objectives
  • Pressures
  • Strengths, weaknesses and blind spots
  • Preferred work style

Assess yourself and your needs, including your:

  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Personal style
  • Tendency towards dependence on authority figures

Develop and maintain a relationship that:

  • Fits both your needs and styles
  • Is characterized by mutual expectations
  • Keeps your boss informed
  • Is based on reliability and honesty
  • Selectively uses your boss’s time and resources.

Information is valuable

The most important information managers want to know is the progress that’s being made on a project. As a result, you need to ask yourself: “Am I sharing the progress I’m making day-to-day or week-to-week?” You can also ask your boss directly: “Am I giving you enough insight into my work?” or “Are there any decisions or projects you wish I were more transparent about?” Most bosses get annoyed if they have been kept in the dark on important issues. If your boss in turn has a boss, your boss is likely to be asked about progress on current issues. It’s important to have a good understanding of what kind of information would be useful and sufficient to your boss when they are asked for an update on those issues.

Clarify expectations

Some bosses will spell out their expectations clearly and in great detail. But most do not. Therefore, you have to be responsible for finding out what your boss’s expectations and needs are. These can be broad (such as what kinds of problems the boss wishes to be informed about, and when) as well as very specific (for instance, when a project should be completed and what kinds of information the boss needs in the meantime).

Possibly the most constructive way to manage up is to make sure you’re clear on what your boss expects of you. Without clear expectations, it’s easy to stray outside your brief, misinterpret a comment, or be offended by a request. Instead, make it your mission to clarify two things in particular: (1) What ‘success’ looks like (2) How to communicate well to achieve that ‘success.’ Claire Lew, 2019 suggests some questions you can ask to achieve this:

  • “What things will I need to accomplish this year for you to view me in this role as ‘successful’?”
  • “What does quality work look like to you?”
  • “If I need your attention on something urgent, what type of communication do you prefer? (e.g., Slack, an email, a phone call.)”
  • “What do you consider ‘urgent’ versus ‘not urgent’?”
  • “If I have any feedback, how would you prefer to receive it – in person, in writing, over the phone, or during a video call?”
  • “If I have a suggestion about something, how would you prefer to receive it – in writing, in person, over the phone, or during a video call?”
  • “If I have a question, what form of communication should I use to put the questions to you? (e.g., In writing, in person, over the phone, during a video call).”

Early info

As a communicator, you can offer unique added value to your boss because you may become privy to some corporate information even before your boss does. This is because you may pick up important information while interviewing senior managers from other areas of the organization in the course of your work, from being briefed on important statutory information such as annual reports and reports to the stock exchange, and also when you are called in very early to be briefed about important corporate issues that require an urgent communication response. Where appropriate, you can alert your boss to this type of breaking news, acting as an early warning system for them. This approach worked extremely well for me with a boss who was general manager of a division in which I was based – he always wanted to be one of the first to be ‘in the know’ about significant events.

Stakeholder relations plan for your relationship with your boss

One productive activity is to draw up your own personal written stakeholder relations plan to help you informally shape your relationship with your boss. This could involve making an effort to take an interest in their professional and personal interests and hobbies as well as their business role. Even simple clues such as the objects, photographs and certificates in their office can be very revealing and provide good insights.

Documented plan

A written plan may seem a bit calculating and mercenary, but what doesn’t get planned generally doesn’t get done! Depending on the seniority of your boss, the sort of actions you could plan and implement:

  • Always alert them to significant corporate issues as you become aware of them.
  • Arrange personal communication, media and presentation skills coaching for them.
  • Organize their attendance at public relations professional development briefings, eg on stakeholder relations management or issues management, especially if your boss is in senior management and isn’t broadly aware of the full scope and potential of the communication role.
  • Set up networking opportunities for them.
  • Arrange for them to host relevant stakeholders at the corporate box at sporting and cultural events.
  • Obtain publicity for them in professional publications.
  • Contribute or ‘ghost-write’ articles in their name in your organization’s publication and in professional association publications.

Develop the relationship over time

The important thing with a stakeholder relations plan relating to your boss is not to be too ambitious with its implementation – make it happen systematically over a manageable period of time. Don’t be intimidated by the time it might take and don’t let it fade away as you deal with the inevitable other pressing issues that confront you in your job. Most of the value in such a plan comes from the way it enables you to develop a strong relationship with your boss by consistent actions over time. This builds trust and shows your integrity.

Work back from the outcomes you want

Simply work back from the outcomes you want from the boss, which may mean small but significant responses on their part. Break down the actions involved in each component of the plan into small manageable steps that you can implement over 12 months. At the end of that time you will be able to look back with surprise and satisfaction at how much you have actually been able to do to cement a strong working relationship with your boss.

Make your KPIs worthwhile

Also, if you are working to an agreed set of personal Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in your job, make sure they are worthwhile and not just there because they are measurable. Try to make the KPIs relate to outcomes rather than merely activity. For instance, if one of your tasks during the year is to conduct a stakeholder relations survey of your own personal or departmental stakeholders, don’t just tick the box that you have completed the survey within the agreed time; drill more deeply for a set of actions (changed behavior) that the survey findings point to – and put together an action plan for those changes. You can then show your boss the tangible changes (improvements) you have made in response to the survey. This helps you justify your position if hard questions are asked down the track.

Refer to your boss’s own performance agreement

Many employers use written performance agreements for their staff. Such a document would be the key to your work for the year. The agreement should be prepared by your boss and yourself in conjunction and should include realistic but challenging targets. You should regularly review with your boss the details and deadlines in the document.

In turn, your boss’s own formal performance agreement, or similar, is a vital guide to you. By knowing what your boss’s targets are, you can ensure you play your part in helping your boss to meet those targets. By all means ask your boss for a copy of the document, or the parts that may be relevant to you, so that you can do your job better – which will enable them to their job better. For instance, the communication component of one operational general manager’s real-life performance agreement includes the following measures:

  • Develop an internal communication strategy by 31 March.
  • Prepare a stakeholder relations strategy by 31 May.
  • Undertake a survey of medium and high priority external stakeholder groups by 30 September.
  • Conduct a communication audit of managers and staff by 30 November.

Developing a workable set of mutual expectations requires you to communicate your own expectations to your boss to find out if they are realistic, and to influence the boss to accept the ones that are important to you. Being able to influence the boss to value your expectations can be especially important if the boss is an overachiever. Such a person will often set unrealistically high standards that need to be brought into line with reality.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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