Recently I was asked this question: What has been your biggest struggle managing people and how did you over come it?
Hands down, the biggest struggle has always been managing up the organization. I believe that managing my own team (those who report to me directly or indirectly) could always be influenced i.e. I had some control. Ah, but managing those above me, not so much.
Senior execs above me in the organization were always the bigger challenge. I’ve had my fair share of superiors who needed to be lead thru everything. Fortunately, I had a far greater share of great leaders from whom I could learn.
I’m Not Ok You’re Not OK
To give you some examples, I once had a boss who would never rate any of his people higher than he had been rated by his boss. Since he was not especially effective, the higher-ups often rated him modestly, if not poorly. Guess what? So went the ratings for me and my peers. Unbelievable, but a situation I endured for several cycles.
The first time it happened, I was stunned and attempted to have the ratings re-written (I knew for sure my contributions to the organization during that period had saved expenses, increased revenue, and reduced turnover; a kind of management trifecta). But my most stringent effort for reconsideration and re-evaluation fell on deaf ears.
The next cycle the pattern emerged. My peers and I banded together, but again, got no resolution. Finally, the guy got shipped out to another department and location. Yeah!
The Emperor Has No Clothes
In another instance, I had a very senior executive to whom I reported that would not accept any bad news whatsoever. It didn’t matter how brilliant my plan to fix the problem might have been, if anything was going wrong, this person just simply didn’t want to hear it. I soon figured out the chief reason for this behavior was fundamental fear of failure. I wasn’t afraid, they were.
My solution was to proceed to fix things my way, getting whatever buy-in I needed from as many stakeholders as possible without ever tipping my hand to the big boss. This normally would never be my go-to way of doing things, but, under this scenario, it worked. It was far easier to take the proverbial bull by the horns and fix a problem rather than fight the battle to tell the boss.
There Are Ways to Manage Up
Here are several key ways I have found to be successful in trying to manage up the organization.
1. Never have a problem without a solution – The person to whom you report doesn’t need more problems. They need results. It increases the higher up the organization you go. Taking a problem to your boss without having a recommendation for the fix, is a bad idea. After all, if you can’t fix things, why do they need you?
As soon as you recognize that something is going wrong, create the solution. Get answers. Build a strategy to implement the fix. Then you can report the problem along with the proposed solution.
Unlike my one story above, most senior managers do want to know when things are sliding. They will appreciate your initiative to have a recommendation rather than merely dumping the problem at their feet.
2. Do for them what you would want done to you – OK none of us are qualified mind readers. Sometimes you have to guess at what the boss wants. The place to start is with your own value structure. What would you expect to be done in a particular situation?
Craft any ideas or solutions around your own expectations first. Once you present those to management, you can begin to adjust based on their response.
The upside for doing it this way allows you to stay true to yourself. If the boss likes it, bang! You are aligning in a good way. If they don’t like it, then you can easily adjust your approach and deliverables using your own value structure as the baseline.
Yes, sometimes you will learn that things will never align. That’s when it is time to dust off the resume and start looking for another job.
[callout]For more ways to enhance your leadership effectiveness, check out my new book
“The Uncommon Commodity: The Common Sense Guide for New Managers“.[/callout]
3. Drive better communication – If you are sensing that you cannot understand what the boss above you wants, ask for clarity. I do not recommend asking in a needy sort of way. Rather I suggest using phrase structure like “this is what I am hearing, does that align with what you meant?” Give them feedback that covers the key elements of whatever assignment or expectation is in scope right then.
Work to gain clarity, even if it means offering a written summary for the boss to check off on before you go the wrong way.
4. Create your own tracking system – Maintain control of your accomplishments and contributions to the work effort. A colleague of mine, Roger Ferguson, created a system he calls the “Big 5”. It’s ingenious yet so powerful. It simply involves writing out your top 5 accomplishments for the prior month. Add to that 5 goals for the new month. If you want, add a third section of 5 areas for growth and improvement.
Prepare this Big 5 report before the 5th of each new month. Give a copy to your boss. It should be on one page. Ask for their feedback. This is a superior way for you and the boss to get on the same page (no pun intended).
Every time I have explained this to a coaching client, the feedback I get is stunning. Bosses that could never focus can now do it with ease. Communication syncs up and progress is made.
I might add that the other benefit of doing this is that at the end of your review period, you will have a library of meaningful information to share during the review process.
Managing up the organization is a tough task. Using these few ideas can make the climb much easier.