Too many people work with their boss in a way that is detrimental to their own career progression.
Time and again I’ve seen colleagues and friends miss out on advancement and promotions because they don’t know how to manage their boss.
One of the keys to my career success over the years was my ability to manage my managers. This does not mean I manipulated or played them, and it definitely does not mean I sucked up to them. This is actually about how I maintained the right relationship with my managers, and managed their perception of my abilities and work ethic.
If you don’t want to “play the game”, stop reading now.
Working with people is playing a game, of sorts. Those who refuse to manage workplace politics, promote their own achievements, or actively cultivate relationships, simply do not get promoted. Again, I must emphasise that this is not about manipulation in the sense of being dishonest, lacking integrity or conniving.
I am going to share with you 7 authentic strategies you can use to manage your boss and your reputation as an employee, so that your career benefits. I have split these tips up into what to do and what not to do (covered in another post coming soon).
1) FIND OUT WHAT THEY WANT
Your manager has a different agenda to you. They are not in your role – they have their own outcomes to produce. They answer to people higher than themselves (even CEO’s still answer to Boards of Directors or the government). Managers are also in a sandwich of pressure. They have their staff asking things of them as well as their bosses. Often, these demands conflict and the manager is left in the difficult position of trying to figure out who to disappoint. So when they let staff down, they often do so because their job depended on it.
If you can develop some sympathy for the pressures your manager faces, you will see opportunities to increase your value. Your boss has at least one task that is a complete nightmare for them. If you can identify it and give them support with it, you will instantly transport yourself from “replaceable employee” to “valuable asset”. Also, if it is a task they usually do not delegate and you can slowly build up your responsibility with it, you are probably adding something to your resume that your peers will not be able to match.
When I was a Senior Probation Officer I realised that my boss struggled with administrative tasks. One such task was quality-checking the work of the rest of the team. So I offered to take on some of his checks. Eventually I was doing so many of these that he adjusted his workload in a way that meant he needed me to complete my share. Not only did this task make me valuable, it also provided me with a new skillset which contributed to me gaining two different promotions later on.
2)ASK FOR THEIR ADVICE AND SUPPORT
Few acts are more flattering than being asked for advice. Nearly every boss wants to pass on their wisdom, regardless of how wise they actually are. Many employees make the mistake of thinking they will impress their boss by not needing any support, so they go at it alone.
If you do not make any mistakes, then your boss may be impressed. Most of the time however, from the manager’s perspective you simply appear too stubborn to take advice, or you appear to not be a team player. Of course, the opposite is just as bad. Few things are more draining to a manager than an employee who cannot do anything for themselves.
What’s the balance? When I was a manager my favourite type of employee was someone who came to me asking for guidance with their career. This should happen early in the relationship, but it can be started at any time. Approach your manager and tell them you want to learn from them. Pick out the strengths you genuinely see in them (even terrible bosses are good at something) and ask them to become your mentor for those particular areas.
Now the next part of this strategy is vital: do not just keep asking them for advice. Instead take solutions and ideas to them for feedback. Rather than them having to deal with a completely blank slate, show initiative and try to solve the problem or be innovate in some way prior to asking their advice. Take a draft to them, rather than no idea at all.
If you prepare them for this approach, telling them that you will try to be as innovate as possible but that you’re also really keen on their guidance, you will find them more open to allowing you to make mistakes. Managers are going to be much more tolerant of your errors if they see you as a “student/apprentice” rather than seeing you as just another employee. This will give you freedom to develop past your peers, who will plateau in their skills for fear of getting it wrong.
3) SET BOUNDARIES EARLY ABOUT YOUR CAREER PLANS
Some of you may have been reading the above and thinking “but what if I become too valuable and my boss won’t support me leaving for a promotion because he/she needs me too much?”
You need to counter this early. Upon your first meeting with your boss (make it happen if they don’t initiate) you should lay out clear expectations with them. Share your career path with them, make them understand the bigger picture for you. They should know exactly how long you plan to stay in their team and where you plan to go next.
This is where I challenge people to have integrity and avoid lying. You should be clear about your goals from the start, that way there is no confusion later on. If you tell your boss that you’re with them for the long-haul and then later you try to bail out, you might provoke their vindictive nature. If they are expecting you to apply for promotions all along, there will be much less resistance.
You can ask yourself “how can I make myself valuable to other leaders in my company?” to figure out ways to counter a boss who won’t give you a good reference out of selfishness. My referee list always has my current boss and then about four other people who outrank him/her. I had to consciously cultivate these relationships and then approach them to be referees once I had impressed them. Most people’s reference list only has two people; their boss and a friend. This looks pathetic to a hiring manager (I know, I’ve been one).
4) DO THE JOB NO ONE ELSE WANTS TO DO
One of the best things I ever did for my career in the Department Of Corrections was offer to become a specialist in managing high risk sex offenders. These were the clientele that very few people wanted to work with – many staff even refused to work with them.
By volunteering for the least-favoured work and turning it into one of main skillsets, I contributed greatly to my reputation with higher management. I had simultaneously taken one of the most frustrating tasks off my manager’s hands (trying to allocate these offenders to staff), created a niche speciality that everyone could see me as the “expert” in, and let it be known that in general I am willing to do the most challenging work.
Choose wisely; there’s no win in offering to do the most boring task. Instead aim for the most challenging. Find a task, assignment or project that everyone else is afraid of and ask to do it. Show you’re tougher and more determined than the rest. The low-performers will mock you and talk about you behind your back. My colleagues used to call me “Golden Boy”.
Don’t worry about them; one day you’ll be their boss!
Even if it’s not the most challenging or unpleasant task, ask to specialise in something important. Become a “go-to” person in a particular subject area. Even better than that, specialise in a few areas. The “Jack of all trades” is actually the most valuable position, because if they dis-establish anything one thing you still have many other skill areas. It also makes your worthiness to the whole company greater because you are versatile.
5) SHOW RESPECT
It’s a bit sad that I even need to include this point, but I’ve seen enough evidence in my time to know I have to. Leave complaining about your boss for when you’re at the pub with your friends. Or better yet, try to transform yourself into a person who’s so confident that they never complain about things out of their control… but maybe that’s a journey for another day!
You can disagree with your boss and you should definitely speak up when you have a different point of view. Just note there are a million ways you could choose to present your argument. Attacking your boss personally or any other forms of disrespect might make you feel good, but ultimately doing so costs you, not them.
Team meetings are usually a manager’s biggest battle. Trying to get the team to buy into instructions from “up above” or other controversial topics is your manager’s biggest headache at times. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes, and then support them. Encourage the team to think “how can we make this happen?” and be a leader.
6) CULTIVATE RELATIONSHIPS WITH HIGHER-UPS
Some of you will be working for tyrants. Your boss may be completely unreasonable and getting in the way of your career progress. Or perhaps they neglect your development so others beat you to the better positions.
Don’t sit around crying about how it’s out of your control. Starting thinking about what you can do to remedy the situation. Accept you cannot control other people and instead focus on what you have power over.
One thing you could definitely do is start building helpful relationships within your own company. I’m not talking about those cheesy planned networking events, where everyone forces conversation and tries to score points. I mean actively approaching people higher up and making yourself known. There are three ways I have done this in the past:
1. Become the go-to “Subject Matter Expert” person in a specific area and then create a broadcast of some sort that gets sent to many people within the company. I used to choose a particular area of work within Corrections and write newsletters about it. These newsletters were packed full of tips, strategies and basically free resources. I also used them to recognise good work I had seen, so I also developed a reputation as a leader.
2. Approach high-performing senior managers and ask them for coaching. Some companies have programmes you can apply for, with names like “emerging leaders” or “senior management coaching”. Either get yourself on one of these fast-track programmes or try create the same effect yourself. I would go to my favourite higher-up leaders and ask them for advice often, usually on higher-level matters like company politics. Just like with your boss, recognise specifically what they are good at and tell them you want to emulate them. Few things are better for your career than having a high-placed manager take you under their wing as their protégé.
3. Be assertive during opportunities to meet senior management. When the time came, I took full advantage of the scarce opportunities to meet and greet both the CEO and National Commissioner for Corrections. I met the CEO at a tea/coffee event and complimented him on a specific but lesser known strategy he was implementing. This caught his attention because he is used to staff just complaining to him, and I could tell the strategy I mentioned was a pet-project of his. I then asked his opinion on some ideas I had to improve the business. For the National Commissioner, I chose to get out of my comfort zone and not sit with my friends during a company lunch and ended sitting next to him instead. We shared stories that had nothing to do with work, but we bonded well and he now remembers my name.
7) BE A GOOD EMPLOYEE
Last but certainly not least, be known as someone who can be depended on deliver results. All of the above is only really worthwhile if you are also a performer. You don’t have to be the best to move up the ladder, but you definitely want to aim for the top 10%. Constantly seek to improve your skills, take all training opportunities that come your way, and always ask for more challenging work.
Learn how to say No as well. Don’t bother trying to be a people-pleaser because in the end your performance will be average and forgettable. Aim instead to filter your work to a few things which you can do exceptionally well. I don’t mean just let other stuff fall by the wayside, I mean prioritise carefully, delegate stuff you don’t need to be doing, and avoid wasting time in pointless activity. Put serious time and effort into organising your time and effort!
For more on superior time management, check out My 10 Quick Time Saving Tips.
Coming up next, what NOT to do when trying to manage your boss and further your career!