We talk a lot about supervising people and running projects. One of the distinguishing traits of leaders who make a bigger impact in organizations is their ability to influence their boss(es), and by extension their boss(es).
I’m not talking about manipulation or sucking up or currying favor. Those tactics cease to work after a time. Be aware that others will use manipulative tactics (including on you) but don’t do them yourself. Henry Mintzberg was right when he said we all hate the people who “kiss upward and kick downward.”
Instead, develop the mindset of pursuing effectiveness. You’re much more effective for your organization, yourself, and especially your team when you effectively influence up.
[Note: You’ll hear the term “Managing up” but you don’t manage your boss(es). You can influence them but don’t mistakenly think you manage them.]
Here are ten things I’ve learned:
- Your boss wants you to succeed. It’s in their interests for you to be successful. If they’re difficult or frustrating, it’s highly unlikely that it’s because they want you to fail.
- Act and communicate in line with what’s important to them. What are the big business objectives, and what are their derivative personal goals/objectives? What is their boss holding them accountable for? How is their success being measured? You want to support that. Make your messaging align with how those objectives are structured. Bonus tip: these things can change over time – and with some bosses, change often.
- Communicate in a style which suits their preferences, not yours. Find out if they’re readers or listeners, if they prefer information to study in advance, and how they like meetings to be run. Are they a “story” person or do prefer “just the numbers”? Listen to how they describe issues to get clues about their style. Adapt your communication accordingly. [If you find your “inner whiner” complains about this, tell him to shut up and deal with reality.] The simple fact is that you will rarely be persuasive if you don’t communicate in a style which suits your boss.
- Be clear about what your team needs to be successful. I have painful regrets from the multiple times I simply didn’t take the time to explain/negotiate/acquire what my team needed to deliver what my boss wanted. Go back to item #1, and talk it out with your boss. Frame things in a way that makes it easy for them to get alignment with others who many need to approve people/budget/time decisions.
- Make them look competent and effective to their boss. Deliver results in a way that demonstrates your boss is effectively managing the larger program area. Write updates so that can be easily shared with positive commentary. It’s considerably easier to have a good working relationship with your boss when you simply execute your job well.
- Disagree when you must, but respectfully. It is possible to disagree without losing your boss’s trust and confidence in your professionalism. Related: be prepared to be overruled and still carry forward what your boss asks for. Ethics issues are exception cases.
- Proactively communicate before your boss asks for it. They should know what you’re delivering, and what’s in flight, and challenges your team faces. Make sure they have updates in their inbox before they ask for them. Where you can, avoid putting your boss in a situation saying “I’m not really sure” when their boss asks them about a problem situation. There’s a general guidance of “bring your boss a problem and a recommended solution,” but don’t put off alerting them to a big problem because you don’t have a solution yet. They should hear about problems from you.
- Ask for feedback and organizational advice. Your boss is an excellent source of counsel. You don’t have to take it all as gospel or marching orders, but seriously consider their perspective. They know things you don’t about how others perceive you, for example. They can give you feedback on what to continue and what to consider differently in the future. Talk with your boss about the bigger challenges facing the company and how your organization helps meet those challenges. Listen for stories about past events, salient meetings, personalities of key people. Discussions like this emphasize to your boss that (1) you care about improving your performance, and (2) you’re thinking about larger issues than yourself.
- Say “Thank You.” There are many things your boss has done and will do which are meant to help and support you. It’s naturally easier for a person to give help to those who express appreciation. Even if you get a gruff response of “just doing my job” then keep saying thank you because it lubricates civil and productive relationships.
- Expect to have different bosses over time and make the necessary adjustments. You can and should learn from every boss.