Manage the Manager

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I shouldn’t have been surprised that Meryl Runion, who has a series of books on “power phrases” and a website called www.speakstrong.com would shoot right straight to the red dot in the center of the target. She did, as I was interviewing her this past week on the topic of ASSERTIVENESS.  (The show and twenty-five other episodes of Everyday Leadership Radio shows are now available with one-click at my website danmulhern.com.)
Meryl said: “You need to manager your manager…”  Do you agree?  And agree from both sides of the equation? Do you agree with respect to your manager – should you manage her or him?  And do you agree with respect to those whom you manage – should they manage you?  I replayed Meryl’s line later in the show, and my guest Dorothy Leeds said, while making another point, “managers wont  like that.”  I pushed back with Dorothy and today perhaps with you, because Meryl’s paradigm shift makes too much sense.*
Let me offer myself as an example. My mind gravitates toward possibility and the big picture. I’m also persuasive, so I can get people to follow me on missions that seem awesome but may be incredibly hard to execute and come with great opportunity costs in terms of the time and energy they will drain from other worthy projects. And I am probably in the bottom quartile of the population when it comes to my natural skills to estimate how long things take, how much resource they demand, how much resistance, and the sequential execution needs. It took me twenty years in management to realize that I often had people working “for” me, like my assistant Tara Adams, who were a thousand time smarter when it came to the intelligence of the practical. So I learned to let Tara manage me in regular two-week meetings and then in between them.  I set priorities, but she asked the realistic questions that tempered my enthusiasm, pointed to the opportunity costs, and generally multiplied my abilities to execute.
Aspects of this situation are unique to my peculiar abilities and disabilities. What’s not unique is that people on our teams have skills we don’t and they see things we can’t. They see their own work. They are often closer to the problem, the client, the customer, and other people who can make a difference. We should push them to manage us. Ask them questions like, “How can I help you succeed? What do you need from me? Is there one thing I can offer that will help you to do your job better?” We have to  take one giant step further.  For in years in passive classrooms and authoritarian households and typical workplaces, many workers have been steeped like soggy tea bag in the culture of dependence. They wait, they listen.  So we have to proactively give more than permission, but the expectation, that our workers should see it as their job to manage us to get results.
Of course, we don’t have to wait for permission to be assertive and (surreptitiously, if necessary) manage our managers.  We can begin by asking ourselves: “What could my boss do differently to get more out of me?”  It might be: give me more clarity about goals. Or, more quickly share information that affects my job. Or, help me understand, “of everything you want me to do, what’s most important to you?”  There’s some great advice on my show on how to assert yourself in these ways, how to manage your manager to get what you need.  But it all begins with the notion that you – not your boss – are responsible for working (with) him or her to get what you need to succeed.  If this makes you uncomfortable as a boss, please push back with a comment and engage in the discussion this week to
Lead with your best self,
Dan
* In fairness to Dorothy, she explained that it wasn’t the concept of managing the manager that she thought would be offensive to managers, but only the language or sound of managing your boss.  Indeed, she has a brilliant approach to using questions that can level the ground with a higher-up so that the worker has genuine power in the situation.

Manage the Manager

Friends,

I shouldn’t have been surprised that Meryl Runion, who has a series of books on “Power Phrases” and a website called speakstrong.com would pierce the red dot in the center of the target. She did, as I was interviewing her this past week on the topic of ASSERTIVENESS.  (The show and any of twenty-five other episodes of the Everyday Leadership Radio are now available with one-click at my website danmulhern.com.)

Meryl said: “we (do) need to manage our managers, even more than they need to manage us.”  Do you agree?  And agree from both sides of the equation? Do you agree with respect to your manager – should you manage her or him?  And do you agree with respect to those whom you manage – should they manage you?  I replayed Meryl’s line later in the show, and my guest Dorothy Leeds said, “managers don’t want to hear that.”  I pushed back with Dorothy and today perhaps with you, because Meryl’s paradigm shift makes too much sense to let anything stand in the way.*

Let me offer an example from my experience. My mind gravitates toward possibility and the big picture. I’m also persuasive, so I can get people to follow me on missions that seem awesome but may be incredibly hard to execute and come with great opportunity costs in terms of the time and energy they will drain from other worthy projects. Now I am probably in the bottom quartile of the population when it comes to my natural skills to estimate how long things take, how much resource they demand, how much resistance they’ll evoke, and the sequential execution needs. It took me twenty years in management to realize that I often had people working “for” me, like my former assistant Tara Adams, who were a thousand time smarter when it came to what I’d call “the intelligence of the practical.”  So I learned to let Tara manage me in regular two-week meetings and then in between them.  I set priorities, but she asked the realistic questions that tempered my enthusiasm, pointed to the opportunity costs, and generally multiplied my abilities to execute.

Aspects of this situation are unique to my peculiar abilities and disabilities. What’s not unique is that people on our teams have skills we don’t and they see things we can’t. They see their own work. They are often closer to the problem, the client, the customer, and other people who can make a difference. We should push them to manage us. Ask them questions like, “How can I help you succeed? What do you need from me? Is there one thing I can offer that will help you to do your job better?” We have to  take one giant step further.  For in years in passive classrooms and authoritarian households and typical workplaces, many workers have been steeped like soggy tea bags in the culture of dependence. They wait, they listen.  So we have to proactively give more than permission, but the expectation, that they should see it as their job to manage us to get results.

On the other side of the equation, we don’t have to wait for permission to be assertive and – surreptitiously, if necessary – manage our managers.  We can begin by asking ourselves: “What could my boss do differently to get more out of me?”  It might be: give me more clarity about goals; or, share more information that affects my job;  or, help me understand, “of everything you want me to do, what’s most important to you?”  There’s some great advice on my show on how to assert yourself in these ways, how to manage your manager to get what you need.  But it all begins with the notion that you – not your boss – are responsible for working (with) him or her to get what you need to succeed.  If this makes you uncomfortable as a boss, please push back with a comment and engage in the discussion this week to

Lead with your best self,

Dan

* In fairness to Dorothy, she explained that it wasn’t the concept of managing the manager that she thought would be offensive to managers, but only the language or sound of managing your boss.  Indeed, she has a brilliant approach to using questions that can level the ground with a higher-up so that the worker has genuine power in the situation.

17 responses to “Manage the Manager

  1. I’ve heard the term “managing up” used to expess this concept. Unfortunately, it implies that when a manager manages the people that report to him or her, it’s “managing down” but it gives some relational perspective in terms of the standard org chart.

    Yes, I agree that where true leadership exists throughout an organization, the manager has as much to be gained from direction by the direct reports as when it’s the other way around. And I believe that a really good manager tries to make his or her reports capable by helping them succeed — that a good manager tries to surround himself / herself with people who are more skilled than the manager.

  2. I like what was said. However, some managers are toxic (I had one once) and even though you try to provide them with tools to keep them from making mistakes they don’t want to hear it. You try to keep them from stepping off a cliff but…look at Enron, World Com and TYCO…I am sure that there were some people who tried to manager their managers and were just not listened to.

    We all need to learn to listen! I have always known that it is the TEAM that makes it possible. My success is their success and I always try to give them credit.

  3. Once again, the concepts of rankism and dynamic governance apply. Managers’ jobs are to look at the forest perspective; workers work at the tree level. Both perspectives are needed. Workers need to see how their work fits into the whole and managers need to see what dynamics are really happening down and dirty in the streets, because that affects the whole system (to mix metaphors).

  4. What if, instead of thinking of this in terms of “managing up” and “managing down”, which imply some sort of sinister dominance, we think of it as “managing together”? As a leader, it’s my job to constantly have my eye on the big picture, and the role of all the people in that big picture, and make sure we’re all pointed in the right direction. To get my job done, I have to make sure all the people on my team know what they need to do to accomplish that, have the tools to do it well, and know how important they are to the whole. This, of course, includes helping manage relationships between members of the team if they’re having trouble on their own, and making sure my ego doesn’t get in the way.
    If I don’t have a team who is willing to “manage up”, as we say, and tell me what challenges they’re facing and what they need from me to get through them, I’m clearly doing something wrong!

  5. The concept and examples are very good. The bi-directional interaction requires a willingness on both parties. I’m responsible for recommending actions to my manager, and must invite my team to manage me.
    There’s courage in making recommendations to my manager, and courage in gracefully accepting nudges and direct recommendations of my team. I don’t have to agree, but I have to engage. If we’re successful in this, we’ll create environments where even our strong opinions can be discussed, questioned, and ‘managed’ in a professional manner.

  6. Good morning Dan,

    It appears that you had a similar topic recently, however, I can relate to managing managers as I have done so often when I was working as a cell block officer at Jackson Prison.

    Managers micro-manage, company policy and procedures, while the employees manage the operations of the company. Often while my interactions have been directly related with the prisoners, there have been often times when the block manager wanted my feedback to help the cell block run effeciently.

    Not only was I allowed to give my feedback, but this gave me empowerment between the management and the prisoners. I can agree to managing the managers.

    Thomas K. Burke – Mentor

  7. I have been a manager a very long time and learned very early on that in order to be effective and efficient with time and resources I definitely needed (and still need) to be “managed” by my staff/team. I need a strong assistant and team who will point out the practicalities of all the crazy ideas I may have, may identify the impossibilities of my calendar/schedule and who will gently remind me of the target dates I may have committed to.

    So while I may provide the vision, the positive influence, the support and development and learning opportunities for my team, they provide equal or more back to me.

  8. Y’all,
    We’re the choir singing to each other today, nevertheless, I think our comments – probably even my own – remain shrouded by outmoded ways of thinking.
    Why is the manager the vision person? I’ve had people who were much better visionaries than I. why is the manager the one charged with “positive influence,” when others may be much greater at it?
    We had one of our daughter’s high school friends over the other day. She seemed like she was fueled by some super-charged substance. Does she have to wait to be “the leader,” or “the manager” to create energy? Of course not. But do we think her managers have fully let her loose, allowed her to manage the flow of energy in their organizations? I doubt it.
    I’m just sayin’. Just saying that this notion that all these tasks, abilities, and responsibilities attach to the manager may just be stifling. Why not BEGIN with the premise that everyone is responsible for all the facets of leadership?
    Just wondering?
    Dan

  9. Speaking of ‘tea bags’….watch how they ‘manage’ the incumbents in November.
    Signed,
    ‘not the choir’

  10. I like Jenn’s comment about managing together. And it’s really about taking the lead and responsibility for our results as needed where ever we are, rather than waiting for someone “above” us to drop the ball and getting upset about it when they do.

    Actually, I don’t like the word managing very much. The hierarchy is clearly implied in the term. I took it out everywhere I could in my Perfect Phrases for Managers and Supervisor’s. And McGraw Hill put it back in many of those places. The language doesn’t convey the new dynamics that are emerging. I made up a lot of new words, but McGraw Hill took them out too. We do what we can with the tools we have. (It’s still a great book though…)

    1. Meryl,
      Great stuff!
      Manage, comes from the Latin “manus” or hand, and “agere” to set in motion or drive. So, it’s the strong hand, also the conductor. It’s hard to remove the “top-down” aspect from it; it’s as though it’s baked into our vocabulary and in turn our thought process. Good for you for trying other ways to pull it out and clean it up!
      There’s an interesting piece here on the etymology of management: http://ideas.mgstrategy.com/index.php?/archives/115-The-Root-of-Management.html
      Thanks for your great contributions,
      Dan

  11. Dan et al – Whether we choose to call it “managing up,” “managing your boss,” or another term, the concept makes so much sense and is done well so seldom. After 40 years of managing and teaching managers, I still see too few examples of employees and team members proactively providing their own manager with advice, suggestions, guidance, or information that helps the entire team get the job done the best way possible. As discussed in my new book “The 8 Essential Skills for Supervisors & Managers,” (due out in late June!) effectively managing your manager has a great deal to do with clear expectations from both parties. Once both are clear about expectations related to performance, results, communication, information flow, taking initiative, etc. then each can more effective take care of themselves and each other – in short, everyone uses their own talents and strengths to achieve great results. Excellent Post!

  12. Hi Dan:

    I’ve been giving folks copies of the old Harvard Business Review classic article “Managing your Boss” for years simply to break down this notion that one manages in one direction.

    Craig

  13. As a manager, I’ve always tried to hire individuals who perform the role they’re being hired for better than I ever could. A key thing I ask of them over and over is, “Tell me what you need from me to help you be successful.” I then give them the leeway to do their job, and spend my time making sure we are all keeping our eye on the prize.

    I LOVE being managed this way by the people who report to me becuase it shows respect for their skills, allows them to feel valued, and ultimately ensures the whole team is successful.

  14. Especially for managers and employees who were acculturated to the previous leadership style of command-and-control and heavy dependence on leaders, shifting to ‘interdependence'(or work based on sharing of more info and responsibility for outcomes), and building a relationship of trust and empathy for one another’s role in the organization needs to be learned and internalized.

    Until now there are several managers who do not want to share info and responsibility; as well as employees who do not want to take more responsibility for the success of the business.

    “TIGERS Among Us: Winning Business Team Cultures And Why They Thrive” by Dianne Crampton provides real life examples of successful team-based organizations (Zappos, Dos Gringos and etc.) wherein leaders and employees are ‘interdependent’ and highly productive.

  15. Not all that many moons ago, in a previous incarnation as an editor/computer analyst for a university IT department, I interviewed for a manager’s job. The panel (11 people…more inquisition than interview) listened as I explained that I would rely upon the technical expertise of my staff to supply the detailed information for technical decisions, because I was not a programmer…although I understood the process in great detail. I could have cut the silence in the room with an Exacto knife. I was then soundly lectured by all present that only those with greater technical expertise can manage technical staff. When my position was eliminated several years later, it was in part due to the cumulative effects of technically proficient, yet inept management. Last time I checked, nothing has changed. Finding managers willing to admit they don’t have ALL the answers seems tantamount to searching for the Holy Grail. Perceived power remains jealously guarded. I believe my own willingness to accept advice from direct reports was perceived as weakness and delayed/prevented advancement in academia.

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