‘The subtle art of managing your boss’ was the subject of a curated thread of posts on LinkedIn earlier this month (LinkedIn News, 6 October 2020).
As its springboard, the thread highlighted a post from Citi Private Bank, South Asia chairman Lung-Nien Lee – an update that, at time of writing, has garnered almost 3,500 views. Lung-Nien’s primary tip for how to manage upwards? “Make your boss’s agenda your agenda.”
He explains: “This means making sure you align with your boss’s priorities and goals… and when you communicate with your boss or someone at a higher level, keep your communication clear and concise. For example, if you want to highlight a problem, that’s fine – but a general rule of thumb is to keep a long story short, and [focus on the] issues which are important … Outline the problem, offer a few key implications if it’s not addressed, and then propose two or three workable solutions.”
Lung-Nien adds: “Managing upwards relates to the question, ‘What are you doing to make your boss’s life easier?’ Put yourself in their shoes: What qualities would your ideal team possess? How would they communicate with you? Whether you're managing up or down, perspective-taking is a key skill and one that demonstrates big-picture thinking.”
Another post in the thread flagged up a recent blog by financial services recruitment consultant Emily Swain on the importance of managing upwards during the pandemic. Swain also stresses the value of regular communication, noting that it is “arguably the most important factor when it comes to managing upwards when working remotely”. (Fram Search, September 2020)
A further asset, she argues, is anticipating your boss’s needs and taking initiative. “It is key when working remotely to understand your manager’s present priorities and try to get ahead in order to achieve those,” she writes. “This can be as simple as doing a data task ahead of time that would help them out, or actioning new ideas that can make processes and communications more efficient for yourself and fellow employees. This remote way of working has given the opportunity for people to manage their time in a different way, creating room to improve strategies and show willing and initiative.”
In which other ways must staff manage upwards to their line managers – and line managers to their senior leaders – in this new context? Which behaviours are vital to observe at a time when people are unable to openly tout their managing-up approaches in the office?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “There’s some valuable advice in these sources about aligning individual objectives with those of the team, department and, ultimately, organisation. That focus on alignment – ‘What’s your agenda? I want to make it my agenda’ – is obviously crucial. But the real onus of responsibility for making this work in the current model rests upon clear communication of the boss’s agenda to the people that they’re managing. Because if you don’t know what they’re trying to achieve, it becomes very difficult to help them.”
She notes: “The boss must have the ability to explain what they want to do, and to do so honestly, or – as our Institute Companion Charles Hampden-Turner has it – ‘without cunning or guile’. Your boss can only do that if their boss is being open and transparent with them. And while we may work hard at relationships somewhere in the organisation, and middle and senior management in that neck of the woods may align with the organisation’s greater purpose, if that’s not mirrored elsewhere, it simply won’t take hold across the piece.
“Interestingly,” she points out, “now we’re unable to rely upon the informal chats and quick clarifications that were in such easy reach when we could sit with each other or stroll down corridors together, we’re resorting to more formal modes of communication. We’re writing more – and we’re certainly Zooming more, with our videocall meetings being by and large shorter, and more focused, than those we had around the table. As a result, there’s less of an opportunity to fix things informally – and those conditions could actually benefit staff who don’t rely upon personal relationships and off-the-record chats to get things done.”
Cooper comments: “We at the Institute have talked for a long time in the area of flexible working about the importance of measuring outcomes – as in the measure of someone’s contribution, rather than the hours they do. So, if we’re looking at vital behaviours, it’s the frequent checking-in and sharing of expectations: clarifying that what you think you’ve heard is actually what has been said, and intended. This must be done in a much more systematic and deliberate way, because even by video, we’re not getting the same body-language signals we may pick up in person to gauge whether a colleague is unclear on something. We’re having to rely much more heavily upon verbal cues.”
She adds: “The firmest foundation of relationships up and down an organisation is clarity about what we expect from each other. That’s not just in terms of delivering outcomes for projects and tasks, but how we communicate with and support each other. And most importantly, that’s an ongoing, constantly evolving conversation.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on managing upwards