The Mentorist

Your Boss: Care and Feeding


I’m probably not the boss from central casting.  For one thing, I don’t find hierarchies or org charts all that interesting.  For another, I give my teammates a lot of rope (and do my best to see they don’t hang themselves with it).

On the downside, my quirks are legendary and, when it comes to people’s performance, my reactions are broadcast on my face.  More than once, I’ve been told never to play poker.

Despite it all, I seem to have a knack for collecting talented lawyers into a group and motivating them to become approachable and highly respected business partners to their clients.

In reality, what made my legal teams work so well is that the lawyers who reported to me figured out how to manage me. Yes, they ‘managed up.’

Managing your boss — whatever leadership style she happens to have — is universally required, if you want to be successful.  This doesn’t involve becoming a sycophant or ‘yes-ing’ your way into favor.  In fact, those behaviors can make you seem weak and lacking in the leadership qualities necessary at every level of an organization.

So, how does one learn the art of ‘managing up’?  It begins by understanding a few principles that underlie the manager / managee relationship and that are easy to forget when you find yourself seated in the managee’s chair.  They include the following:

  1. Remember that your boss has a boss.

    It’s highly unlikely that your boss sits at the top of the corporate heap.  Even CEOs have bosses — they’re called Boards of Directors.  If you appreciate the fact that your boss also wears a managee’s hat vis-à-vis someone else, it helps you to identify a bit more with her.  You realize that you’re in parallel positions:  Both of you are being judged on your performance by someone higher up the food chain.

  2. Know your boss’s goals and pressures.

    What objectives has your boss signed up to achieve this year?  And what pressures does she face as she goes about getting there?  The best bosses share the company’s — and their own — objectives with the people who report to them.  They realize that, if their managees don’t know what those objectives are, they’re likely to chase after results that have nothing to do with achieving them.

    If your boss hasn’t told you what objectives she’s pledged to meet this year, ask her.  Then ask her what she sees as the biggest obstacles to getting there.  Finally, ask her what part you can play in helping meet those goals.  Bosses want to know you’re on their team — not just on some org chart, but really on it.

    Show that you’re interested in your boss being successful and want to be one of the backers that make her so.

  3. Figure out your boss’s style.  Adapt accordingly.

    Learning Style:  How does your boss like to get information?  Is she a ‘listener’ or a ‘reader’?  In other words does she prefer to first have information presented in person, so she can ask questions?  Or does she like to first receive information in writing, so that she can study it before having a discussion?

    Work Style:  Is your boss organized and formal?  Someone who prefers traditional meetings with set agendas?  Or is she more informal and intuitive?  Someone who deals well with situations ‘on the fly’?

    Decision-Making Style:  What level of involvement does your boss like to have in the decision-making process?  Is she a ‘high-involvement’ type, who wants to be involved in decisions and problems as they arise?  Or does she prefer to delegate, expecting you to inform her only of important changes and major problems?

    Adapting your own work style to your boss’s reduces irritations and misunderstandings.  In the long run, life gets easier.

  4. Act as if your boss is dependent on you.  She is.

    Once you appreciate the fact that your boss has a boss (and the pressures that fall on her as a result), you come to realize that she needs you in order to accomplish what’s expected of her. The benefits that result from your good performance don’t just flow in one direction (downward from your boss to you).  Rather, they flow in both directions, with your performance benefiting your boss vis-à-vis her own boss and colleagues.

    Recognizing your mutual dependency somehow serves to create a more balanced dynamic between the two of you and frees you up to collaborate.

  5. Take responsibility for getting what you need.

    Your boss isn’t omniscient.  No one is.  Don’t expect her to know all that you need in order to do your job.  You sometimes need to tell her.  If you need information or a resource that you don’t have and can’t get, let your boss know (bearing her style in mind when choosing the way you convey this).  Be clear in stating why you need the missing item (first, making certain that you do) and the impact of not getting it.  It’s far better to approach your boss now then to let time pass and fail to meet her larger expectations of you.

  6. Don’t squander a limited resource.

    Your boss has limited time, energy and influence.  Use these up with care.  Sometimes, you’ll want or need your boss to go to bat for you on an issue, requiring her to stand up to someone else in the organization.  Make sure your issue is truly important, before you ask for her involvement.

  7. Know your boss’s quirks.  When you can’t satisfy them, explain why.

    I’ll use myself as an example here: I like the people who report to me to have thought through possible solutions before they lay problems on me for fixing.  I also hate to be blindsided at the water cooler:  That is, I like to be warned of storm clouds gathering on the corporate horizon before the CEO or a Board member asks me about them.  It’s no fun to seem clueless.

    At some point, I realized that my managees weren’t telling me about problems in the early ‘brewing’ stages, because they feared I’d be displeased they hadn’t yet come up with solutions.

    Managing your bossTogether, we devised a way through this ‘rock and a hard place’ situation they found themselves in:  When one of my managees thought I needed to know about a ‘water cooler’ problem, he would start our conversation with a prologue.  First, he would put me on notice that he was there to tell me about a potential problem purely so I wouldn’t be blindsided if the ‘Powers That Be’ asked me about it.  Next, he would warn me that he didn’t yet have a solution to propose — rather, he was only there to deliver a ‘late-breaking news’ bulletin.

    This preface set my expectations for what was to come (news of problem / no solution) and saved many a misunderstanding between us.

  8. Ask for feedback.

    Want to know how your boss thinks your doing?  Ask for feedback.  But be certain you time this right and ask the right questions — a subject ‘The Mentorist’ will tackle in days to come….

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

2 thoughts on “Your Boss: Care and Feeding

  1. JEO –

    Terrific post. Great job.

    Gosh, if only you had told me this stuff when I joined Sapient in 2001. I don’t think that I quite figured it out until a month or two after you left the company.



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