How to not manage your boss

08.01.12 Thumbnail BossYou most assuredly do not control or direct your boss.  Nor do you staff him or her. To attempt to engage in any of the standard management behaviors toward your boss is, by definition, insubordinate. Your goal is to be effective, and leadership expert Tom Cox explains how to do that.

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08.01.12 Blog BossMy friend Michelle has been thrust into a no-win situation at work.  She asked me how to best “manage up” — i.e. how to manage her boss — to salvage the situation.  Here’s what to do and what not to do.

The Poisonous Project
Michelle’s boss thought he was doing my friend a big favor.  The senior leaders are deep into the Annual Forecast, which they’d always done collectively.  This year there are changes afoot — some senior leaders are on the verge of being fired, or retiring, or having their fiefdoms reorganized out from under them.

With the firm trying to become more rigorous and procedural, someone realized the senior team were all participating in a project that had no Project Manager.  Hey, wouldn’t Michelle make a great PM for this high profile effort?  What a great way to get exposure and grow your career, right?

Not this time.

For reasons not entirely clear to Michelle, the senior leadership are all finding reasons to delay the forecast.

One wants to wait a week for better data. Then another is out for a week.  Then another one wants to change the assumptions fed into the forecast.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Michelle is starting to get worried.  If this continues, not only will this ‘side project’ consume her life, it’ll end badly and harm her career.  How can she get this project back on track?

Here are three principles that will keep you on track:

You cannot “manage” your boss
You can help your boss be more effective
You can help your boss to help you be more effective
First, let’s clarify our language.

You cannot “Manage” your Boss

The word “manage” traditionally means  these standard management behaviors and activities:


You most assuredly do not Control or Direct your boss.  Nor do you Staff him or her (i.e. you don’t pick someone to fill that role).  To attempt to engage in all five of these five standard management behaviors toward your boss is, by definition, insubordinate.

Another common tactic is to selectively feed your boss the data that supports your desired conclusion.  As soon as this is detected, your credibility is destroyed.  Don’t do it.

Michelle’s way forward will be to help her boss to do his job better, particularly in Planning and Organizing.

You can Help your Boss be more Effective

Drop your fantasies of rapping out orders and making your boss salute you. Not gonna happen.

Instead, be a better subordinate.

Peter Drucker said, “the basic task of management is to make people productive.” When you focus on how you as a subordinate can serve your boss better by making your boss more productive, you’re on safe ground (in terms of avoiding insubordination and getting fired) and you’re fast on your way to becoming indispensable.

To take the classic Drucker example, look closely and see if your boss is more of a listener or a reader. For a boss who’s a listener, give him a verbal briefing before key meetings, and don’t spend lots of time on elaborate written reports or briefings. For a boss who’s a reader, reverse that — send him a written brief before the meeting. For a boss who’s more visual, provide mind maps and other visual support tools.

Is your boss a skimmer? Provide a very carefully worded and clear Executive Summary.  Is your boss detail oriented? Give both a recommendation and all the supporting material.

Always phrase things in your boss’ language, or better yet, in your boss’ boss’ language.  For example, suppose you’re going to make the case that customer service reps should be allowed to take longer on the phone with clients.  Further, suppose you love customer service because you feel fulfilled when you help people, yet your boss is numbers-driven, AND is being judged on throughput and various call metrics.  When you make your case, do the work to test whether a longer initial call leads to fewer call backs, fewer escalations, fewer cancelled accounts, or other hard-dollar or hard-number improvements.

You can Help your Boss to Help You be more Effective
So, how does Michelle harness Drucker’s advice and save herself from a Career Limiting Experience with this potentially doomed project?

She needs to respectfully get each senior leader to tell her their vision for the purpose of the Annual Forecast.  Get them to articulate the tension between accuracy and timeliness.  Get them to say how late it can be before it starts to lose value.

Once they’ve said that, summarize it and feed it back to them.  You’re not trying to steer them according to your values — you’re serving them by helping them communicate even better with each other, and helping them better understand the consequences of their current actions.

Sample questions:

“What does the successful outcome of this effort look like?”

“When does accuracy start to become the enemy of timeliness?”

“Who needs the forecast by when, in order to drive their decisions?  What happens if it’s late?”

“How does the forecast let us better serve our customers, and our customers’ customers?”

Then, show up with a problem statement, three options and a recommendation.  Something like:

PROBLEM: The annual forecast is now 3 weeks late and at the current rate will be delivered 6 weeks late.

IMPACT: Three departments will be impacted by further delays, creating costs of about $2 million (see Appendix B)



And of course, Michelle should present the foregoing visually (in a pre-meeting briefing or email) for the visual thinkers, in a verbal pre-meeting briefing for the listeners, and in a written pre-meeting summary that you email to the readers.

If you try to “manage upward” by attempting to manipulate your boss, you’ll fail horribly.

If you focus on making your boss more effective, you’ll succeed brilliantly.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building worklace turst. Email comments to [email protected].

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