What Great Bosses Know about Managing Up

In your job as a supervisor, you manage people and projects, resources and relationships. One of the key relationships -- one that affects all your other efforts -- is the one you cultivate with your boss. In the best case scenario, both you and your boss see it as a partnership.

But that's an act of wisdom and generosity by your supervisor, who intentionally wields power with a touch so light you barely feel it, unless it's the tap on the shoulder you need at just the right moment.

Partnership with your boss is also something you earn by mastering the art of followership.

Management scholar Robert E. Kelley wrote a classic Harvard Business Review essay, "In Praise of Followers" in 1988, and it resonates today. Kelley has little use for what he calls "Sheep," "Yes People" or "Alienated Followers" -- people who follow passively and either fail to have or fail to use critical thinking skills. They're the subordinates who say: "Just tell me what you want," which I think are the most dangerous words bosses can hear -- or lead people to say -- in the workplace.

That's hardly the stuff of which partnerships are made. It takes what Kelley calls "Effective Followers." In his essay, he says these followers share these essential qualities:

  • They manage themselves well.
  • They are committed to the organization and to a purpose, principle or person outside themselves.
  • They build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact.
  • They are courageous, honest and credible.

You've probably noticed that the description of effective followers also applies to effective leaders. Absolutely. Every leader at some time is also a follower. These qualities serve you well in any role, whether managing those who report to you or, as we like to say in our leadership seminars, managing your boss.

Let's look at some practical tips to make certain your boss sees you as an effective follower, leader and partner. I'm going to describe each briefly here, but they're so important that I'm going to expand on them further in my next several columns and podcasts.

Here are five quick steps to building a partnership with the boss:

1. Be crystal clear about your boss' priorities.
This doesn't mean waiting for that person to tell you. It means being a good reporter. Ask questions. Get clarity. Don't assume you know. And don't assume what you know hasn't changed since the last time you checked.

2. Adapt to your boss' work style.
How does your boss like to exchange information, set and honor deadlines, do meetings, deal with pressure and delegate? Where is there opportunity for you to align your style or help fill in some of the boss's gaps?

3. See and care about the big picture.
Your boss knows you're supposed to be an advocate for your team, but you'll crash your own credibility if you appear to have a silo mentality. You need to demonstrate concern for all colleagues and an interest in industry trends.

4. Be known for solutions, not problems. It's fine to identify system failures, roadblocks and rogue employees, but don't do so in a way that brands you as a whiner, a blame deflector or an excuse machine. Couple the problems you report with ideas for solutions. And make sure those solutions don't demand that everyone else but you make some changes or do some hard work.

5. Stay on the radar. You may be busy or an introvert. You may hate meetings, detest self-promoters and be fearful of looking like a suck-up. For each one of those issues, there are reasonable alternatives that keep you in touch with your boss. Great bosses know that good work doesn't always speak for itself. Leaders needs to speak up -- for people, resources, risks and opportunities, and to make their own successes evident.

OK. That's shorthand advice. I promise to provide strategies on each in future columns. I'll even deal with the challenge of managing bosses who aren't perfect -- and those who are perfectly awful.

But in today's podcast, let me add one more bit of advice to today's agenda: What if you have multiple bosses -- as many people do today? I'll share tips. Listen to "What Great Bosses Know about Managing Up."

Poynter's "What Great Bosses Know" podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can download a complete series of these podcasts free on iTunesU. Poynter's leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that's valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.

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    Jill Geisler

    Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist "spin." It takes exceptional leaders to build trust, along with the systems and culture that grow great journalism.


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