Managing your superiors

In this final in this series on who you should manage, managing up is a reason I survived so long as a CEO. If you think about it, for 18 years, in sitting through over 500 board and committee meetings, I not only learnt from seeing other people managing up, but also heard the multitude of very senior business peoples’ comments about how these internal and external guests managed up. 

I saw clangers of course – like those who hadn’t done their homework on the technical matter or personalities, those who talked too much or attempted to present 50+ PowerPoint slides! Guests in these meetings who didn’t impress usually had an “I” attitude: I have this to tell you. Or I have this presentation to give you. Or I want to win this contract. Too much I! With staff, especially those who were very valuable technically, we could coach them, but some just couldn't let go of the "I". 

Guests who succeeded over the years and ended up being promoted or winning contracts came into a Board room with an attitude of service, I am here to serve you. What can I do or say or hear that will make you comfortable with this direction? Success in this world comes from service out. To be successful, there are four key ways to serve your superiors. 

1. They want to trust you. If you have their trust, you’ll be given more responsibility. Trust is simple. Know your brief, respect them in your behaviour and deliver what they ask for. If you think their path isn’t the right one, deliver what they ask for, and then deliver a bit extra as an alternative. Because you can’t know all the reasons for their points of view, their path might be right. But a decision might not be approved because of timidity, politics or something left field. If your path is important, work behind the scenes. But sometimes a good idea just needs the right time, so protect your reputation and firepower. If you press it without support, they may think you don’t respect their decision and you could lose trust.

2. Make their job as easy as possible. Help them. I had various directors who were time poor and those who loved every detail. Communicate top down by presenting the most impactful first and do not underestimate how something is physically presented. Hard copy as well as soft copy can be important sometimes. And don’t just share technical material – let them know so they can acknowledge key staff members’ lives and achievements. 

3. Make it safe for them. By this I mean present in a way that “no” or “more information” is legitimate. I would spend committee meetings observing the members. If I thought something wasn’t understood, I would ask a safe question. “Has everybody heard enough, or can I explain this point a little more or bring back some clarification?” It is natural for people not to want to ask a “dumb” question or admit they don’t know something. Read them and speak in a way that lets them safely say “Help me”. 

4. They want to be proud of you, because this helps their reputation. Demonstrate you are succeeding not just in your core KPIs. Take accountability for making change. In your industry or business, earn wider respect by not just complaining, but pitching in. Think through what each of them is facing in their world. Do they have a new boss, so might be feeling pressured themselves? Do they have a key staff member out? Can you offer to help in some way? Demonstrate you are always ready to step up. 

So think about how you manage up – especially if these people do your performance review! Make it easy for them to trust and work with you and be proud of you. Really these elements come down to having an attitude of service. Until next time.