One of the most difficult and painful positions you can find yourself in as an experienced and capable leader is needing to “manage up” because your boss does not have your back. It is an unenviable position – but that does not mean it is an impossible situation.
Let’s consider an all-too-common scenario: you lead a team and report in to a vice president (VP). This VP is only interested in whatever you can do that will make him look good to the C-suite. Not surprisingly, therefore, he tends not to listen to you if the information or results you are sharing with him are less than stellar. Neither does he respond to the valid concerns that you have. He also has the aggravating habit of throwing you and your team under the bus in meetings with senior leadership.
Your team is composed of great people – people who are competent and committed to excellence. You are all willing to address tough issues and go the extra mile to overcome difficult challenges. But you are getting effectively zero support from your boss. What do you do?
You are wise enough to know that a frontal assault on your boss, whether privately or in front of the C-suite, is entirely inappropriate (even if you occasionally itch to do so) and would just backfire on you. You are careful not to badmouth him to anyone outside of your department and you have even taken a few of your more outspoken team members aside to remind them that complaining is bad for morale – even if the complaints are justified.
The problem is, you are sensing that some of your team members are beginning to check out. A feeling of negativity pervades your meetings and motivation is noticeably lacking. People are responding to needs with less alacrity and preparing less thoroughly for presentations to your boss. In fact, you recognize the seeds of apathy in yourself as well. You have to take action to reverse this trend.
Here are four strategies you can employ in situations like these to “manage up”:
#1. Change your approach in communicating with your boss. Try different ways of packaging information to play to what your boss finds appealing. This does not mean sugarcoating matters or leaving out hard facts. It does mean putting a greater focus on different elements. For example, you might quickly summarize a market challenge, then heavily emphasize the solution you propose. This moves your boss swiftly from the negativity he does not like to hear about to the positive action that he responds to favorably.
#2. Determine what your boss needs to effectively “manage up” himself. As a leader, you need to understand the perspective of the people who work for you, and the people you work for. So, take a look up the chain of command. What does your boss need to manage his own boss? What does he need to make a great impression on the C-suite? Then, ask yourself what you and your team can do to support those needs. Can you give him reports or presentations that will make him shine? Can you provide him with solution to present to senior leadership? The more your boss sees you and your team as “go to” people who can help him further his own aims, the greater value he will assign to you which will, in turn, affect how he relates with and to you.
#3. Develop relationships with people who can advocate for you. If your boss does not listen to you and your team members, who does he listen to? Are any of those people individuals whom you could cultivate relationships with? This is not about finding people to gripe to about your boss; you never want to undercut your boss as that will just reflect badly upon you. This is about finding advocates who can be an extra voice in your boss’s ear to support your aims – people who are at his own organizational level whose opinions he respects. These advocates can be on the alert for naturally-occurring opportunities where they can speak in support of a solution or initiative you are recommending, whether that is about adding resources or modifying a product offering.
#4. Look for opportunities to be heard by people who outrank your boss. If you are in meetings – or even just in casual conversation – with your boss’s superiors, try to gain some visibility with them. For instance, deliver a sharp presentation. Offer a detailed analysis. Provide a well-thought-out idea. Have data at your fingertips. It is vital that you maintain a dual goal in these situations: DO NOT show your boss in a negative light; DO show yourself in a positive light.
All these strategies have one thing in common: they encourage you to take the high road. Be a person of integrity at all times, no matter what provocation you may perceive from a difficult boss. Since people and situations are all unique, these strategies do not always succeed. But they can succeed where other efforts have fallen short. Give them a fair shot and they very well might create a triple-win situation where you win, your boss wins, and the business wins. That is a goal worth striving for!