My last blog post and podcast episode was on the “Accountability Ladder”. I received more commentary than with previous posts including one with a question about managing up effectively.
It inspired me to put together some helpful tips on establishing and nurturing productive working relationships with your superiors. I use superiors rather than boss, as once you’ve got things clicking with the boss, you will have to pay attention to her or his peers as well as the boss’ boss.
Why you ask? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen my peers come to a mid-year or year-end performance review and calibration session touting the accomplishments of their subordinates, only to get challenged by the boss. I’ve done it myself many times, as I simply disagreed with how my direct report assessed the performance of a subordinate. Also, I sometimes disagreed with how my peers evaluated their subordinates. This is the whole purpose of calibration sessions.
This opens up many issues when it comes to performance reviews and assessments that require further discussion, but let’s stick to the topic for now. Having the skills and knowledge to be successful in any role is critical, but without a good working relationship with the boss, you’re bound to have a short tenure.
You’ll need to execute on a few basics in order to solidify the relationship with your superiors. Here are some important issues to consider that incorporate fundamental actions that you can take as well as a few don’ts. Both are important.
First Things First
Manage up, don’t kiss up
They’re not the same. Some bosses like a kiss-ass or a yes-man. I never did, and I can see them in an instant. Constant adoration on both a professional and personal level will be evident even to those bosses who like it, and it will ultimately backfire on you. Worse yet, it will be obvious to everyone else as well, and that will do nothing but hurt your credibility even if you’re a smart person who has the goods.
Know your boss
Let’s talk about the boss. Now I did a previous blog post and podcast episode on good bosses and bad bosses, so I won’t revisit that here, but it’s important to know what kind of boss you’re dealing with. You may love your boss or you may hate your boss. As long was you want to remain employed at your present company, you won’t have a choice at least in the short run, to maintain an effective working relationship with him or her.
Be incredibly observant in the first couple of meetings with your boss, and document her or his behaviors, likes, and dislikes. Is the boss aloof or incredibly focused? Does she like to engage in small talk or is she all business? Is he always prepared with an agenda or does he expect you to provide the agenda with detailed updates, either in writing or verbally?
Get clear on expectations
You may have expectations of your boss, but it’s obviously more important to understand the boss’ expectations of you right out of the gate. If your boss is direct and clearly lays out expectations for you, great. If not, you need to do it. You need to ask him or her directly what is expected of you, and in sufficient detail so you know what to deliver, how to deliver it, and when. If you pay attention, you’ll know within the first couple of meetings how to meet your boss’s expectations.
Once you get to know your boss a bit, it will become easier to anticipate their needs knowing what they’re like. If they like frequent updates, prepare for them and get them on the calendar with you boss’ assistant. If they want to understand the details, don’t tell them not to worry about that as you are managing it. Prove to them that they can trust you by exceeding their expectations at every turn. If you do this consistently, I guarantee your boss will provide you more autonomy as they develop confidence in you.
Don’t ever walk into your boss’ office empty handed. That’s the “wing-it” strategy. Imagine how ill-prepared you’ll look if your boss asks what’s going on or for updates, and your response is, “not much” or “what would you like an update on?” Always, always, always have a notepad with an agenda, just in case your boss doesn’t have one. Have at least three items on it. Provide key updates on people and projects. Get clear upfront and ask the boss what she or he would like updates on in advance of the meeting. This makes for a much more productive meeting and conversation.
One of the worst behaviors I ever saw was a peer of mine many years ago, who would call the boss and say, “I have this problem, what should I do about it?” Why does the boss need you if he or she has to solve your issues for you? Don’t ever dump problems on your boss’ desk. You won’t have all the solutions, but your boss expects you to use your brainpower, experience, and skills to make things happen. If problems of a significant nature arise, let her know sooner rather than later. Inform her of the issue, actions you have already taken to address it, and plans for subsequent updates.
When an organizational problem surfaces, if you think you can offer value in leading an effort to address it, then volunteer to take it on. When your boss is faced with an issue they are struggling with, nothing says “team-player” better than saying, “I’d like to help.” Imagine what this does for your company profile in terms of your boss’ boss and peers’ perception of you? Now they get to see you in action across a broad company function or issue that affects the entire company. Is it risky? You bet. No risk, no reward.
Remember “do your job?” Do it. Just deliver over and over and over again. In fact, as I mentioned, exceed their expectations. If you want to get in the good graces of your boss and others, then produce high-quality deliverables repeatedly, deliver them early, and be sure to highlight that your deliverables are consistent with what the boss asked for. Get out there in the field in front of employees, uncover issues or problems, and take actions to address them. Otherwise, you’ll be reacting to a much larger fire that will erupt later.
Ask for feedback
Whether you think you are more qualified than your boss or not, ask for feedback. Ask them specifically if you are meeting their expectations and where you need to improve. Be self-critical and accountable which are the key behaviors of anyone that wants to improve. How about asking these questions of the boss:
What am I doing well that you would like me to continue to do?
Where am I not meeting your expectations?
Where do I need to improve on in terms of skills or issues to address?
It’s better to ask these questions periodically and fairly frequently rather than have them come up at the year-end review. Also, when you get the opportunity to engage with your boss’ peers, ask them for feedback also. Asking for someone’s feedback that sees you from afar provides another perspective for your development and demonstrates your understanding of the breadth of your influence across the larger organization.
Personally speaking, out of the almost twenty different bosses I’ve had over three and a half decades, I had more good ones than bad ones. More importantly, I’ve had good, strong relationships with some and rather unproductive ones with others.
When I think back to the best relationships, I took many of the actions I outlined above. When I think of the less fruitful ones, I realize it was every bit of my fault as it was theirs. And to be clear, some of the best working relationships were with bosses that I didn’t socialize with or even personally like very much. It was all about executing on these fundamental actions.
Last but not least
One last thing. It’s important to consider the length of time you have with any one particular boss. It shouldn’t be for too long. What’s too long? A few years is plenty with anyone, on a professional level of course. Even with the most productive and effective relationships, things can turn sour for all kinds of reasons. Political machinations and personal issues can get in the way and turn a once, incredible bond into a sinking ship. Or as the saying goes, people can simply drift apart. It’s happened to me and countless others. Therefore, look for opportunities to move around during your career and work for different bosses. Why not get another invaluable perspective that will be incredibly helpful for your development and maturity?
Thanks for writing this Greg. I look back on my last job with a great deal of frustration. There are a lot of things I could have done better. But your point about clear expectations is probably where I failed bigger than ever. This is a great article that I will be saving for future reference.
Thanks Shawn. Being clear on expectations of each other in a boss-subordinate relationship is so fundamental. Many of us have learned the hard way to get this one right. Glad you enjoyed and thanks for inspiring the writing of this! I’ll be recording the podcast on this topic tomorrow.