Everyone wants to please his boss. Most effective IT managers want to please their bosses because pleasing their bosses means meeting business objectives. And that's always a good thing. However, it's very important that managers don't strive to please their bosses at the expense of their teams.
I once reported to a guy who seemed like he was never free to talk to any of his staff members. We'd call, send e-mail, stroll past his office surreptitiously trying to get his attention, whatever we thought would work. It was like trying to get an audience with the Pope. He was always busy talking to the CEO or some important strategic partner, which is fine, but we needed some attention and guidance at our end. Sometimes we just needed some face time to make sure one of our projects was proceeding as he expected. I think the guy just had too much on his plate and couldn't admit it (which is a subject for a whole other blog), but that didn't make us feel any better. He also agreed to way too many new projects for us, not because he was a slave-driver, but because he just wasn't intimately familiar with our bandwidth capabilities and what we already had on our plates.
Here's what a whole lot of managers don't understand: Your staffers are the movers and shakers behind meeting those business goals—the basis on which you're ultimately judged. You represent your team in those meetings with upper management, not just yourself and certainly not your own career. You should be so familiar with your team that you know whether that new project the boss wants to give them is something they can take on or not. A manager that doesn't have a solid understanding of his department's value can't effectively articulate a case for them. A manager who doesn't have his team's back is not going to get much loyalty from his team.
Turning down a project from upper management is not easy, but there are ways to do it without being shot on sight. If you never question anything, the CEO will keep on assigning projects. Until someone (like you) points out that it won't be feasible without more resources or time, your boss will never know.
Believe me, your staff members know when they're not your priority. It may present itself in more overt ways, such as when you pass on to them huge projects with short deadlines. But there are subtler ways too. Like when their requests for information e-mails don't get answered promptly. Or you continually put off meeting with them because you're busy with people higher on the totem pole. Middle management is a two-way street.
Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.