Whether you’re the newest junior lawyer in the team or the General Counsel, you’ll have a line manager. Whilst all of us would like to have a good relationship with our boss, managing up is about ensuring that the relationship is productive to the benefit of both parties, your team, your ‘clients’ and the wider organisation.

Of course, if you’re also a line manager in your role, you need to be good at managing both up and down. If you neglect to manage down, your team may lack direction, suffer low morale and your reputation will suffer. But if you only manage down and not up, you risk not having your boss as an ally in advocating for you and your team, which may cost you when projects, opportunities, resources and acknowledgement are up for grabs.

Meet the New Boss

It’s likely you’ll have several line managers over the course of your career. Some may recruit you to become part of their team, while others may come in new to head your team. In this situation you’ll be under scrutiny and you’ll want to establish a good relationship as soon as you can. Making the right impression in the early days and weeks will be important.

Remember that a newly appointed boss is also finding their feet, particularly if they’re also new to the organisation. Setting the right tone from outset can play a big part in how the relationship develops.

A key point is that your relationship with your boss is very much a two-way relationship. While they have a degree of management control over what you do and how you do it, you can exert a lot of influence on how the relationship develops and how well it works. At its best, you’ll be a working as a team, each supporting the other in working to meet your team’s goals.

Don’t Forget the Old Boss

Just because you or your boss moves on doesn’t mean that they cannot continue to be important and influential in your career. If you’ve had an excellent working relationship they can continue to be a good source of support, say as a mentor.

Good Boss, Bad Boss

You know if you’ve had a great boss how they can have a really positive impact on your career development. We also know that a ‘bad’ boss can undermine confidence and commitment, lower morale and create a stressful working environment.

If you are a manager yourself, you know that it’s a demanding but critical part of your role. Being a good manager is an important aspect of career advancement although that’s not to say that everyone who achieves a senior position is a good manager. Few, if any, managers are the finished product and most managers will be developing and honing their management skills. Understanding this allows you to see the relationship as one of mutual support, where you can have influence and negotiate how things get done.

Here then are 11 things to do well in order to manage up effectively:-

1. Earn trust

Trust is the glue that holds together your relationship with your boss and your other colleagues. It’s a critical factor for any in-house lawyer. So, how do you earn it? There are certain things that your boss needs to recognise and appreciate in you, including:-

  • Not hiding mistakes or blaming others in the team (even if the mistake was theirs)
  • Following through on your commitments
  • Being on time for meetings
  • Being prepared and on-point so as not to waste anyone’s time
  • Being straightforward and not holding back
  • Sticking to your position but knowing when to compromise.

2. Communicate in a way that will get attention

Learn your boss’s preferred style. Some people like to discuss matters in a meeting while others like a short report updating key issues, which can then be covered in a brief meeting or not. Whatever their preference, learn your boss’s style and what works for them so that you can tailor the information you give them and how you present it.

3. Avoid nasty surprises

Things occasionally go wrong, of course, and the best policy is to fess up early. But, generally, your boss will want reassurance that work commitments and schedules are being met and that team morale is healthy. Of course, there’s a balance between communicating too little and running everything past the boss – which they won’t thank you for! It therefore pays to find out what key information your boss needs from you and the best way to update them so that unwelcome surprises are avoided.

4. See their perspective

Your boss may not reveal much about the pressures they are under, either because it’s their style or because they think you’re under enough pressure yourself. But understanding the bigger picture and the requirements on your boss and the pressures they’re under can then allow you to support them by knowing how best to help, warn and brief them. So engage with them on the bigger picture and not just in relation to your work or that of your team.

5. Think Solutions

It’s an old cliché but your boss is looking for solutions not a list of problems. This is not to say that they want you to ignore the problems or that they won’t be prepared to help you find solutions. But the more senior you become the more you’ll be expected to be working proactively to find solutions to business problems. You may not work out the answer alone but you need to be thinking constructively to engage in a useful dialogue with your boss.

6. Recognise your weaknesses

To build a good working relationship with your boss you need to be upfront about your management flaws. There’s little point in pretending that everything is working beautifully if there are clearly areas that you need to address. Your boss will appreciate the fact that you’re proactive and assertive. But don’t forget humility and the wisdom of admitting where you could do better. Also, in appraisals, as well as being straightforward about your own performance, be honest about the performance and potential of your own people.

7. Don’t bad mouth your boss

No matter how well you work with your boss, there will be occasions when you don’t agree with something they ask from you. It may be a policy they themselves have reservations about but have to implement. It doesn’t pay to be publicly critical of your boss or, worse, to go over their head. That is unlikely to ever be a wise move and your criticism is likely to be seen as disloyal and put your leadership credentials in doubt. Disagree strongly in private but don’t become known as someone who’s willing to bash the boss. And this includes not being a gossiper.

8. Be supportive

This can manifest in several ways. Accept the tasks and projects given to you. By all means negotiate if you think you need extra resources, for example, but it’s important to be seen as someone who embraces new tasks and challenges, someone who is supporting your boss to achieve goals and objectives. If you’re attending a meeting with your boss, make your contribution positive and don’t undermine them. Deal with any disagreements in private. And be helpful and polite to the boss’s wider team. For example, it pays to get on well with your boss’s PA.

9. Assert yourself

The more you demonstrate your capabilities, the more will be expected and demanded of you. The more senior you become the more your advice and judgement may be challenged, particularly where it may be controversial. Whilst you should expect robust discussion of difficult issues, don’t be cowed or deflected from what you think is the right or best way forward. Argue your case constructively and stick to your guns. Ultimately, it’s more likely to earn you respect. And in an organisational context, it’s positively dangerous if there’s too little challenge or disagreement.

10. Make clear what you need

Your boss may have wide ranging responsibilities and is unlikely to be familiar with the minute details of your role. If you need things from your boss then make this clear, whether it’s to help influence change, make a case for more resource or whatever. Your boss should be a powerful ally but you need to help them understand what you’re attempting to do and why.

11. Know your purpose and get feedback

In an effective relationship, you’ll know what you need to do and deliver and the goals and objectives you need to achieve. Your boss will give you regular feedback via 1-2-1 meetings. But if the set up is less structured, you will need to press for clarity and what’s expected of you and your team. Work hard to pin your boss down on these as it is undermining if performance expectations are unclear and risks achievements and successes not being recognized or celebrated. And make sure that this includes feedback on your own performance. Don’t forget also to provide your boss with feedback, although be tactful and respectful in doing so. Your organisation may have a mechanism for you to do this anyway, but good bosses will welcome constructive feedback on how the relationship is working.

Conclusions

Being an effective manager means managing up as well as down. It may not always be easy but it’s worthwhile devoting time and energy to making it work as well as you can. After all, our boss is usually an influential figure in our career progression. The key themes in managing up are worth mastering as they represent skills and behaviours that will prove important and influential throughout one’s career.

Reading

The Art of Managing Up – Beverly D Flaxington 2015

The Art of Managing Up – Wayne Turk, Defense AT&L, 2007

If You Cannot Manage Up, You Cannot Manage At All – Andrew Hill, FT Limited, June 2019.

To read the next article titled 'Managing conflict' click here.
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