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Your Manager's Dirty Little Secret: They Want You To Manage Them

Learn how to master the delicate dance of managing up.

Up (Disney’s Pixar)

Read Time: 3 minutes 33 seconds

Please check out our new feature this week, The MGMT Mailbag. Get my help on your most pressing management challenge.

"Sit down! This is my Super Bowl. I'm the QB. You'll run the play I call, or you can find someone else to do it. You pick."

If only we'd been in a locker room. Or if the metaphor had even made sense.

Instead, we were in a crowded office. And my Super Bowl, in this case, was performance reviews. Better yet, I had just shouted my boss into his seat. 

If you know me, this is not a natural posture for me. I grew up in a home where the volume on words was turned to 11 and intended to inflict pain. As a result, I pride myself on staying even. Perhaps even when the moment demands a little something more.

So I summoned a little extra that day because I knew that one moment of exerting my command of this situation would prevent months - yes, months - of painful second-guessing.

My manager at the time had high standards. He poked and prodded mainly to see if you had already poked and prodded yourself. And given the stakes - people's career trajectory and compensation on one side, budgets, and company profitability on the other - our approach needed to be airtight.

And it was.

I was confident because this was the 16th time I had run this process.

So, no. We didn't need a new framework. We didn't need to squint at the numbers again. We didn't need one more double-check.

And what it took to manage my manager at that moment was conviction.

It was strategy and, quite frankly, a healthy dose of exasperation.

But it worked.

And it opened new levels of insight into how to manage my manager.

While there is no shortage of tips and tactics (I included some of the best below), here are the core principles I see most high performers use.

Their Goals = Your Goals

You can only win a game if you know how to score. And winning, in this case, is helping your manager succeed. So you need to know their goals and what they're being held accountable to.

And here's a hint: If they won't get fired for repeatedly missing it, that's not the real goal. "I need to grow revenue by $100M and develop an innovation committee." I'm guessing you know which one you want to help with.

How do you figure this out? Ask. Seriously, just ask.

"I want to ensure I'm fully aligning my team's impact with your goals. Am I right that your focus for the year is on X, Y, and Z?"

If your manager wants to avoid this conversation, you might want a new manager.

Goal to Expectations

When we show leaders how easy it is to co-author bulletproof expectations, you can hear a missing piece of their system fall into place.

“Oh no, I haven’t been managing my team at all.”

Clear expectations align teams, make feedback easier, and chart a clear path for individual development.

This one piece of our MGMT Accelerator program gives leaders hours back every week. 

Our last session for 2023 is more than 50% full. Don’t delay.

Solutions > Problems

Here's how to handle problems with your manager, from the worst way to the best:

  1. Hide them and pretend everything is fine.

  2. Put them "on their radar" but downplay the issue.

  3. Accurately escalate them and ask for help.

  4. Bring a few viable solutions for them to select from.

  5. Highlight the solution you recommend with their blessing.

  6. Solve the problem, share your reflections, and ask for coaching.

Let’s look at each possibility:

  1. Please don't do this. Ever.

  2. You are delegating your work to your boss. Avoid.

  3. Ok, if you're truly stuck, this is better than nothing. But you have to learn from this situation and be able to apply it to similar ones.

  4. Getting warmer. You've brought down the friction and shown them wisdom by thinking through the options. Bonus points if you can pinpoint what's keeping you from picking one.

  5. Now we’re talking. And if the stakes are high - high cost, hard to reverse, highly visible - this might be the best path. Measure twice cut once. 

  6. This proactivity is what they mean when they say they want leaders who act like owners. Owners solve problems. 

Want to operate this way systematically?

Speaking of...

No Surprises

I worked for a very demanding CEO at one point. But he was also very forgiving. I asked him what the most successful people who worked for him had in common on the first day we worked together.

"No surprises. I'll happily take good news. And I'll accept bad news. I'll have your back as long as I hear it from you. What I can't handle is getting blindsided."

For me, this was confirmation of what I had figured out instinctively. If you want to get the best from your manager, give them the best information to work from.

Help them win, and they’ll help you succeed.

Wait, That's It?

Actually, Yes. I could easily rattle off another 10 ideas for you, but this gets you 95% of the way. Simple to understand, yet requires real effort.

  • Make their goals your goals.

  • Solve problems relentlessly.

  • Arm them with accurate info.

I once overheard the same manager that I had to headlock into submission on performance reviews say to his Chief of Staff:

 "Where are the fries I didn't order?"

That statement is as unreasonable as it is instructive.

But once you start anticipating and stop reacting, you’re truly managing your manager.

Which is what they wanted all along.

Even if they didn’t say so.

The MGMT Mailbag

Here’s a challenge that hit our inbox from a reader last week:

“What are some best practices for helping leadership see the criticality of employee engagement to deliver on the mission?

I don’t think it’s realized how important it is that everyone understands the mission, has clear expectations to deliver, opportunities to build learnings, and support through consistent feedback.”

— Anonymous

I wish we saw it less often, but many leaders pour tens of thousands of dollars into recruiting great talent only to neglect them once they arrive.

Leaders of high-performing teams nail all three pillars - talent, mission, and systems. If one breaks, the cycle turns from virtuous to vicious.

Here’s how I’d try to get my leadership to buy-in:

Data - Speak their language. And usually, it’s ROI. Can you connect lower engagement to worse results?

I’ve written about the value of a team “pulse” report before, and this question is one that data is uniquely suited to help answer.

Stories - Are there anecdotes that achieve “myth” status?

I work with a company that claims to be “entrepreneurial.” But few people are. They always blamed the person, not the culture. But once a few of those people left and started massively successful companies, it forced them to look inward.

Forgiveness - Sometimes, the best way to make change broadly is to make it locally first.

It can be hard to imagine the benefits of doing things differently. So remove the reliance on their imagination and show them the better way. Figure out what will move the needle on engagement for your team. Now you have proof.

Want help with your management challenge? Hit reply on this email and tell us what’s keeping you up at night. We’re happy to keep it anonymous if you prefer.

More Tips For Managing Up

🧨 I wrote about common mistakes that prevent people from managing up.

🔥Wes Kao’s Jedi Mind Trick for managing your manager (hint: we agree).

🚀First Round interviewed 30 leaders for their best managing up tips.

Help Us Grow

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If this playbook would help someone you know manage their manager, please forward it to them.

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Thank you for reading. Appreciate you!

Dave

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