CXO

Managing Up. Not the same as Sucking Up.


Most of today's more thoughtful managers believe that the best way to improve their results is to ensure that their subordinates, or team members, are working at their own best levels.  Consequently, a great deal of time is spent working with their folks as individuals or in team meetings. By getting to know their strengths and weaknesses, the manager believes he or she will be able to make big improvements in productivity and job satisfaction overall.  That will reflect well on them as leaders, they believe.

Well intentioned.  But not the best use of the manager's time however.

The most successful managers in most organizations recognize that spending more time helping their own boss to succeed is a better use of their energy and focus. When the boss starts to regard you as someone who is generally positive in outlook, has new ideas, and is dedicated to helping them succeed; they, in turn, will start showering you with more resources. Why? Because they'll want more 'good stuff' from you. If, by adding to your budget or headcount, they'll get more of your support and help - it will come.  Might even be an unconscious decision on their part. People just naturally will help those who help them.

All of us appreciate getting a little help to become more successful.  Here are a couple of suggestions for helping the boss - and - helping yourself:

  • Just fix it.  I have a client who once said, "If one of my team is bringing me a dead cat; they better have a shovel too."  You don't want to be seen as one of those people who show up at the boss's door with problems all the time.  (S)he's got enough problems of her own.  And if the boss starts associating you with the problems you bring, he starts to think that you're the problem. You'll be avoided, not promoted or given recognition.

Much better: When you have a problem, fix it and then tell the boss about it after the fact. Let the boss come to see you as a 'fixer' not a problem child.  If you can't fix it yourself; at least bring a couple of suggestions for how to fix it.  It's important that the boss sees you are not simply delegating your problems up.

  • Don't Make the Boss Nervous.  Probably your boss has enough pressure in his or her life already without you adding to the load.  Don't be the person in the group meetings who always notes the potential problems or hassles which will result from a prospective course of action being discussed.  In every organization, there's always at least one person who thinks that they're the only one who can anticipate 'disasters' and feels an obligation to tell the rest of the team about them while still in the concept stage.  Rather than looking smarter than the others, that person looks like a know-it-all to his peers and makes the boss nervous with all the doom and gloom.

Don't be that person - let someone else get that reputation. You want to be seen as an idea person. A positive person who sees a better future.

  • Never Denigrate a Peer to the Boss.  There are times when you're with the boss and it's just the two of you talking like 'colleagues'.  She may ask you for your assessment of someone on her team.  It feels like, "This is just between us, I trust your opinion, give me your insight.  You're my most important player....." 

The problem is, you don't really know who the boss likes.  He may be friends with the dude he's asking about.  Perhaps he went out on a limb to get the individual promoted and wants to hear that it was a good decision.  But you mistakenly use the opening to tell Boss what an idiot this guy is, how he screws up, and that you don't think he's the right stuff for the company.

That may be the last time the boss asks you for your opinion.  And you won't even know why.

                                                         Till next time,

                                                         Career Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

27 comments
Absolutely
Absolutely

Excellent article. The paragraph about identifying potential problems before they are evident describes a useless habit I would do well to break. "[b]Don't Make the Boss Nervous.[/b] Probably your boss has enough pressure in his or her life already without you adding to the load. Don't be the person in the group meetings who always notes the [i]potential[/i] problems or hassles..." You effectively steer a car, or a team, by aiming at your intended course, not by fixating on obstacles, especially ones that are only [i]potential[/i] obstacles.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

However, "Don't Make the Boss Nervous," seems a little off to me. Too many projects get started with a pie in the sky idea that IT Guy A says will take 3 weeks. 8 weeks later, the project has 1/4 of the features and 1/4 of the functionality as the original idea and will need at least 2 more months to be completed. Which is why projects need to be discussed rationally and sometimes that includes talking about the bad news. I've seen too many projects go into the toilet because nobody stood up and said it might be a bad idea or that the project was scheduled too aggressively.

Zen37
Zen37

Managing up is the worst kind of management there is. I get paid to fix problems, if i cannot fix them, then i bring them to my boss who gets paid to fix those problems, so on and so fourth. If i can fix the problem, then it's part of my job to fix it. If my boss is not there to fix the problem i have, then what do i need him/her for? If all i do is tell him that I've fixed this or that, it sounds like a spoiled kid how want attention from Mommy and Daddy, not a professional trying to get the job done. A boss usually knows more about projects, company politics and such which will make his decision more in tune with company policies and targets. If i fix the problem and create a major screw up in the process, because i did not know those things, you cannot tell me that my boss will be "understanding" towards my efforts to fix it. Bottom line, for me, is; There's a problem, i fix it, That's my job. If i can't fix it, it's usually because i don't have all the information. That's what the boss is there for. I go see him we fix the problem or he takes it up to his. That the way the chain of command works. You make it go the other way, you're likely to have the whole machine start to break down.

angry_white_male
angry_white_male

This wounds like it was written by someone who's probably used their subordinates until their blood was sucked dry and took credit for all their work.

Why Me Worry?
Why Me Worry?

Nobody likes to be the messenger of bad news and get shot down for "not agreeing with the team", but such mentaility fosters sloppy and poorly planned projects from the start. Somebody has to have the "balls" to stand up say to the project leader that "concept A simply won't work because...". Nobody likes to be the bad guy or the one to sound negative and pessimistic, but when time and money is at stake, this is a required bit of evil that cannot be overlooked or circumvented.

Why Me Worry?
Why Me Worry?

yet, are rarely given the proper tools or background information to do it. Somehow, managers have been stupidly conditioned to assume we are psychics or mind readers and know exactly what they want or are thinking. Communication is a two way street, and if the manager never shares important information with his/her subordinates, then the entire operation is doomed from the start.

Why Me Worry?
Why Me Worry?

I think that nepotism and having a "favorite subordinate" should not be allowed in corporate culture. I'm sure you guys have read about the many postings I have written here in reference to working at a large lawfirm 2 years ago. Anyhow, there was a coworker who was the most annoying and ass kissing SOB ever known. At no surprise, he was also buddy buddy with the IT director and used that to his advantage to rat on his fellow coworkers and blame others when he screwed up. The dissappointing thing in all of this was that he got away with it because according to the ignoramus IT director, this ass kisser could do no wrong and was the manager's eyes and ears. Nobody likes a corporate snitch or as we called them in grade school, "tattletales", because this fosters a very hostile and uncomfortable work environment. There is a reason why many companies have policies against married people working together or the hiring of relatives and such. Mind you, these two people were not related, but having too much a buddy buddy relationship with the boss creates anemosity among other members of the department.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

was a good idea, though for completely the wrong reason. Other than that I agree, entire article reeked of someone spreading his cheeks and waiting for a tongue. Just bury the cat, my ass. How long will that take, what aren't I doing instead. Is the pet semetary still active? I found this article condescending, I got the distinct impression someone would prefer the dept to run itself, so more golf could be got in with the CTO.

JamesRL
JamesRL

The advice about not bringing a dead cat without a shovel is good. But I suggest a couple of things to clarify. If you can't find the shovel, don't hide the cat till it gets really stinky. At least tell the boss about the cat, suggest you are looking for the shovel and see if the boss can help. Having the boss find a decomposing cat is a very bad thing. Whats worse is if senior management finds the dead cat, and confronts the boss, who isn't up to speed. My staff know that I will back them if they make good decisions. So they are empowered to make them. I also don't come down hard on a bad decision, I try to use it as a learning/coaching opportunity, because if you come down too hard, you get staff who become afraid to make the hard calls. What should a manager do? Be a sounding board. If the staff can't decide between option a or b, ask the manager. If the staff has a problem with people in other departments, especially senior management in other groups, the boss gets paid to take on those challenges. I often tell the staff that I am the bulldozer. If you try nicely to get what you need and fail, call on me, and I will try some other ways. I don't see anything in the article about taking credit for someone else's work. James

richard.gardner
richard.gardner

This guy clearly knows absolutely nothing about IT projects. The whole industry is gearing up to professionalise and recognise capability and risk management as a vital part of any project. If you can think of a potential risk you are not doing your job if you don't speak about it - if your team members think this has a negative reflection on you that is their problem because they're not approaching the project with the correct degree of detached professionalism. Far worse the team member that says "I knew that was going to happen" after the event.... I can agree with him in fluffy professions like marketing and HR where results are generally not really measurable....

JamesRL
JamesRL

If the team has all agreed on something, you have to be careful in how you communicate something like "this won't work". People take things personally, and obviously this plan had someone's thoughts and ideas behind it. The trick is to make improvements to the plan, as opposed to stabbing the plan through the heart with an ice pick. Its also a good idea to do this sooner rather than later. The later you get in a project, the more is invested in it and the more difficult and expensive to make any changes. Sometimes its best to take the project leader aside for a quiet one on one and explain your concerns, and make some suggestions on how you can make the project more successful/less risky/whatever. If the whole project is untenable, then see if you can make the project manager see that, before you go above their head. Standing up in a meeting and blindsiding the project manager with new information, is NOT helpful. Yet it happens all too often. It tends to hurt everyone. The complainer looks like a showboat or worse, and the project manager appears to not know whats going on - a lose lose scenario. I've been in organizations where senior management committed to a certain technology, despite what the real techies thought. They made their objections known, but were forced to continue anyway. So they did their best to make the thing work. In the end, it died after a year's effort and tons of $$ were spent. The decision makers were fired, but the techies who objected were kept on as they had objected, but in such a way as to be supportive of the team and the company. James

Jim Rodgers
Jim Rodgers

The Dog Whisperer program on the National Geographic cable channel has been an inspiration to me. A recent episode has a lesson for this thread. It is important that you do not have a favorite if you are the Alpha [Human]. When you show preference for one dog over another, the others in the pack easily can detect this. They become nervous and distracted. Fights break out. Just one "knowing glower" from the preferred member can instill rage in another dog. People are so much like dogs! Yet, dogs are not people; they are dogs. They have special dog needs, and treating them like people is depriving them of what they really need. They need to know who is the boss, and that the boss is on the job. When people treat their pets like their human children or friends, the situation can easily evolve into an episode of Dog Whisperer. Okay. People also are not dogs, and people have unique needs also. But it is an important lesson for managers who seek to maintain harmony and effectiveness in their teams. Stay in touch with everyone and show no favorites. The seemingly inappropriate attachment a worker can sometimes display toward a boss can be an indication of personal problem. Maybe its a transient "need somebody to talk to" about their personal problems, and they trust you and your judgement. So don't be a creep. However, it also can be a more serious issue like Borderline Personality Disorder. Next thing you know, this worker has defined his/her entire being based on the relationship with you. Once they are attached, the slightest fluctuation in your "loyalty" can send that person into desperate state. So, getting too close to one of your workers can sometimes trigger real problems. Then there is the case where it's the boss who is needy. That's a real disaster! If the worker doesn't first quit or sue, the "pack" can really become annoyed. For one thing, the boss with this problem is not really "on the job" -- not being like the Alpha the pack needs. His credibility is shot. This is the worst case scenario. People are not all equal. But you treat them as such if you are the leader. The up-and-coming next generation of leaders performs well in this context; they need no special attention -- that's why they will be leaders. Managers who are preoccupied with these "futures" can have problems with daily operations because, once again, it is disruptive and serves no real purpose. Now, as to the premise that started this thread, that you should spend more time "helping" your boss will be good for you [and your team]. Let me just say this: "Mommy, mommy, look at me!" "Oh! That's very nice, Todd." My advice, instead, is to use your boss as a resource. Learn from him or her. Extract facts, information, knowledge, perspectives from your manager. You will succeed when you do you job well. In a household, the "business" is child rearing. Say please and thank you, take out the garbage, and you will get a raise in your allowance. In a real business, it is, for the most part, your ACTIONS (results) not your INTENTIONS (attitude) that are measured. Just look at all those nice guys getting layed-off! When preparing a resume, managers and executives need to point to their results, their accomplishments. At the END of the day, this is what matters. Therefore, I submit to you, DURING the day your intentions need to be to get the job done well. It really the only thing that works. Jim Rodgers Senior Consultant

j_most
j_most

Tony, That line is tooo funny! LOL

fredsc
fredsc

Having over 300 employees before retiring gives you plenty if insight to what your employee does for you. Meaning anytime one slides up to me talking about another employee I turn away saying to myself he isn't getting on the better side of me, most people like this will be the first to go. Most of my employees had been working for 25 years or more but there is always some one trying to suck his way up the line and he never any further with me.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

Reminds me of when I was a teen working in a grocery store. A bunch of us were assigned the job of disposing expired biscuts. They had been sitting out for awhile waiting for disposal. When one of us dropped one of the cans on the floor the seal cracked, the gas rushed out and the can took off like a rocket with biscut exhaust. It actually flew several feet! Well we all had to try it. You get the picture, teenagers, biscut rockets, of course the inevitable happened; a biscut fight! Well the next morning I'm cleaning biscuts of the wall and one of the corporate execs walks through the back room. The next few minutes were very uncomfortable but I survived. Fortunately I was almost done. The moral is; it is better to let your immediate boss/manager know about the dead cat before senior management finds out. Whether you have a shovel or not. LOL

virtualwolf
virtualwolf

This article says it the way it is in the real world. Managers don't want to hear from you. They just want you to be silent and go about your business and not make any waves. Always be good and happy no matter how bad you're getting screwed. I don't agree with working in the manner the article states. I agree with more of the people that disagree with the article, but that is not reality....Managers suck!!!

JamesRL
JamesRL

Its one thing to be chicken little, who calls out the risks at every turn. Its another to practise risk management. A few years back, I found myself doing an project risk assessment for a project at one of North America's largest banks. They had a risk assessment group of course, but they were not part of IT, and were available to me as consultants. My job was to do a proper risk assessment which included analysis (probability and impact), ranking (probability x impact) and mediation plan (mediation steps, monitoring, communications). Someone doing the risk management plan obviously needs to consult with the project manager and subject matter experts in various areas. Thats a far cry from being the one in the meeting who simply says, it won't work.... James

Absolutely
Absolutely

Your observations about "Alpha" & other personality types, however, all describe dealing with emotiona baggage that doesn't belong in the office in the first place. Some emotional discipline is a prerequisite for working with people, not some kind of "extra credit" point for "Alphas", managers, or unusually successful professionals. [i]Just as the Alpha is characterized by a calm emotional state (emotional maturity), there is tremendous value in Leadership at all levels. This is to say, "Wouldn't it be nice if everyone had his/her head screwed on right?"[/i] Petty whiners are a dime a dozen, easily replaced by petty whiners who keep our petty whining to ourselves, or vent outside the office, for example in a forum created for our professional peer group. [i]Perhaps more in IT than in any other department of the company, we find the fussiest, most petty and egocentric little people...[/i] I haven't noticed this difference in temperament, but considering your corporate officer rank, I'll assume you have a larger data set from which to base your estimate, and proceed on the assumption that "more in IT than in any other department of the company, we find the fussiest, most petty and egocentric little people." [i]I never figured out why, but I suspect it is because of the low barrier to entry for these jobs. Too many IT workers either are obsolete or never were very qualified. Superimpose on this all those little technology battles: Internet Explorer vs [whatever this year], Exchange vs Notes, HP vs Solaris vs AIX, Linux vs Windows, Mac vs Windows... Napoleans, Prima Donnas, Christs,...[/i] The nature of the work probably also has a lot to do with it. A great many people call IT only if something goes wrong with their primary professional tool, whose flawless functioning they are accustomed to taking for granted. It's no good faulting the end user for this, either. If IT systems were not such advanced technology, appearing less like magic (Arthur C. Clarke), then the IT tools as we know them would not be worth their weight in lumps of silicon. We are stuck with occasional disappointments resulting from dust in power supplies, insufficient memory in servers whose applications were programmed so well that their use increased much faster than expected, and other such interruptions in imperfect, but very useful, IT tools. This introduces unmet expectations into a disproportionate number of other departments' interactions with IT, tending to put IT workers disproportionately on the defensive, which tends to bring out the worst in everybody. I don't work in the IT department, but I do notice, in myself as well as colleagues, a tendency to whine when certain applications, which we are not able to service ourselves, stop working flawlessly for us. To take our disappointment to IT, then classify them as fussy, petty, egocentric, etc., is unfair, immature, irresponsible and inaccurate.

Jim Rodgers
Jim Rodgers

No one cares about who's nice to whom if the whole team is a failure. Sure, some other managers may try to understand why the job did not get done. And in some companies, this means who's at fault. I find the 360 degree review process to be most important to everyone just before the failure is revealed. It's only important to the workers because everyone is filled with the sense of doom, and they need to express how they feel about the failure they are creating. (How mad they are at so-and-so, who's at fault,...) Just as the Alpha is characterized by a calm emotional state (emotional maturity), there is tremendous value in Leadership at all levels. This is to say, "Wouldn't it nice if everyone had his/her head screwed on right?" We don't just behave well because we have to get the job done (which was Freud's view). We behave well because we are well -- emotionally, and usually, professionally. Perhaps more in IT than in any other department of the company, we find the fussiest, most petty and egocentric little people... I never figured out why, but I suspect it is because of the low barrier to entry for these jobs. Too many IT workers either are obsolete or never were very qualified. Superimpose on this all those little technology battles: Internet Explorer vs [whatever this year], Exchange vs Notes, HP vs Solaris vs AIX, Linux vs Windows, Mac vs Windows... Napoleans, Prima Donnas, Christs,... I don't see the same pandemic of immature behaviors in the Software Product Develop groups, or R&D, Finance, etc. Where ever we see relatively high professional barriers to entry, the jobs are likely to be performed on a professional basis and according to well-understood technical requirements. Workers understand their value in the process, and they don't breakdown under the stress of self doubt. And in IT, this is further compounded by the tendency to blow away the department wholesale when things get out of control. Perhaps the greatest value in Leadership at all levels is calm people get the job done. When it comes time for reviews and promotions, we don't really need to worry about the hysterics and the maniacs and the passive aggressives... they will not get the job done, and they will pay the price. When it comes to feedback controls systems in the culture, we want to put the loop around those parameters that matter most: Results! And don't be misled: pissing-off your co-workers is a "result," too. But we probably should ignore (or help) troublemakers more than we should go out of our way to punish them. Punishment only escalates the dynamics of trouble-making. Punitive cultures can rapidly de-stabilize. When the Alpha comes in screaming about this or that, the whole pack goes into an uproar. This is at the heart of why so many dog owners have discipline problems with their pets. The guy at the top is key because he/she sets the tone for the group. If he doesn't care about Quality, or Honesty, or the future, then no one does.

Absolutely
Absolutely

We get along with our teammates in order to get the job done, not the other way around, despite the overbearing emphasis on 360 Views and other touchy-feely nonsense.

Mr L
Mr L

It is increasingly more important to your career to be able to answer to how you got the job done. As more and more F100+ companies use more and more associate surveys and loyalty/happiness metrics as ways of judging managers, your feedback on actions being all that matter is less and less on target. A decade ago (maybe further back, actually) someone with an understanding of business needs, clarity of purpose, direction, a sense of urgency, and the ability to get things done was most likely singled out for fast-tracking and could, as long as they did not Peter-Principle out, look forward to a successful career. Now, make sure you add in the ability to gain/maintain consensus (even from people who might not necessarily have anything to do with your actions), appropriate people skills (i.e. dealing with associates, up-down-sideways) that drive "yeah, s/he's really good to work with...really good people" comments at 360 review time, etc. In short, how you got it done is every bit as important in many organizations...if you plan on climbing the ladder past direct supervision...as what you got done.

Jim Rodgers
Jim Rodgers

Okay, I'll buy that. I'm encouraged by the lack of foam about your mouth -- the non-reactionary way you respond to counterpoint. It bespeaks your good intentions (in addition to the fact you actually stated your intentions, and they were good). What's more, it's really cool that you have the maturity to respond to opinion without emotion; yet, you reveal a benevolent passion for your work (and your work group). You seem like a level-headed, balanced, likeable sort of person. I read over a few of your past posts. Your advice is consistently clam, and often claming. You do occasionally let it all hang out, but it is in the One Minute Manager way -- focused and when needed. Feel free to improve my remarks anytime.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I will readily admit that I have strengths where my boss has weaknesses, and my boss's boss counts on me to help him, with things like communications. But my motivation is not my career, or my boss's career, but the good of the company. Would I help my boss mess up one of his peers - no, and I would expect he would never ask. If my boss is too focused on something, and I can help do a task he would normally do (write a policy) I will, when I know I can do a good job. But the most important thing to me, as someone who has been involved in strategic planning, is alignment. In a well run company, I should know my company's goals, my division's goals, my regions goals, and my boss' goals for his organization. And my goals for myself and my team should support those higher goals, where it makes sense. Thats not sucking up, but it could be considered managing up. James

Jim Rodgers
Jim Rodgers

There is that old idea... that a beautiful woman cannot meet as many guys because the guys get too nervous or are discouraged by her beauty. The guy who gets the beautiful girl is the one who treats her like a normal person, which makes her feel better. Same thing happens in management. Some workers are so in awe of their managers (especially of their executives), they cannot be calm and treat them like equals. But "Managing Up"? It sounds like a technique that might get results for some people the same way that one can overcome problems with public speaking by imagining the audience is naked. But your boss is not naked, in most cases. So I not only disagree with the article on the face of it, I also disagree with the implied assertion that your boss would welcome your "help" with "his" problems. This could be much worse than sucking up. This could be wierd! Now the worker sees himself as the all-powerful omniscient mother from whom all blessings flow. That's sucking-down. Get out of my office!

JamesRL
JamesRL

Clearly the author is NOT talking about suck ups - those should be ignored at best, coached or even fired, if they have no other redeeming qualities. The author suggests that directly - don't diss your peers. Its pretty transparent. If you want to look better than your peers, have more accomplishments behind your name. The idea is to take some of the bit between your teeth and do what you can to resolve your own issues, and use your manager as a last resort. Everyone talks about being empowered - its a double edged sword. James

JamesRL
JamesRL

If the mail server is down, and you don't know what the problem is, then don't wait to "find the shovel", you need to get the information to senior management as they will take heat for it, and its better that everyone is prepared and on the same page. If the problem is not that urgent, then coming up with the shovel, the plan on how to fix it, is a good idea. You want to avoid being seen as a whiner. You want to be seen as someone who tackles issues and resolves them - whether you are a manager or an employee. I survived a similar experience in high school working at a 7-11. I'd never met the regional manager, and he came in late at night to check me out. The coffee wasn't as fresh as it was supposed to be (every twenty mintutes). I didn't offer an opinion on the sandwhiches (I hadn't tried them myself). Needless to say my manager had a few words with me, but it all worked out in the end. James

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