When I joined Facebook we didn’t have managers. When we are deep in the feedback period of the performance cycle we may imagine such a world as a utopia but I assure you we are wrong. I would have benefitted immensely from more management. That period of my career holds my greatest professional regrets. And when I finally was assigned a manager years later that person didn’t have any more experience than I did. It took a long time for us to build up the discipline of good management.
That is one reason I write quite a bit of advice for managers. Both its absence and its presence have had a huge impact on my own career. As a manager myself I am voracious for ways I can improve how I support my team. But everyone, except perhaps a CEO, has a manager of their own. For this post I wanted to explore how we manage that relationship.
I strongly believe in service oriented leadership. Managers should exist to benefit their teams. It is often incorrectly viewed the other way around. But it is simple to prove that this is true: you could do your work without your manager but it is unlikely your manager could do your work without you. This is why a manager’s primary job is to make you successful.
Here are my tips for managing your manager effectively.
If you keep your hopes and desires a secret you cannot realistically expect your manager to deliver on your behalf. That is akin to possessing a hammer and staring very intently at a nail. That isn’t how the tool works.
Your manager can only effectively serve you if they know what success looks like for your relationship. When you share where you want to go in your career they can spot opportunities for you and ensure your work ladders in that direction. When you share that you are struggling for whatever reason they can supply extra support to keep you on track. When you share fears you are off course they can provide reassurance or reinforcements.
If you don’t ask your manager for help, you aren’t taking full advantage of what they can offer.
Be selfish sometimes…
The goal of a manager is to be useful to you. Understanding what your goals are is a part of that. But understanding the expectations you have from them beyond achieving your goals is equally important. Setting clear expectations will not only help them serve you better it will also give them clarity on how you like to be managed.
Ask that your manager give you hard feedback. As good as it feels to receive praise you should not miss an opportunity to ask what you can improve. I like phrases like those used by Tony Robbins when he was getting started as a public speaker: “Tell me one specific thing I could be doing better.” These are hard to elude with vague responses.
Ask that your manager give you clear expectations. Understanding and exceeding your expectations is a key mechanism to progress in your career. This should not be a conversation limited to performance reviews. It should be a regular one that you confidently understand and check in on actively to reaffirm alignment.
Ask your manager to give you clear explanations. When something isn’t clear to us we often blame ourselves and try to hide the fact that we don’t understand. But communicating clearly to you is a core part of the service your manager provides. If something isn’t clear to you, it is fair to insist that they help you understand.
…but not all the time
Managers are people with their own challenges. And they are a shared resource and as a consequence can sometimes be taxed by other forces acting upon them. If your relationship with your manager is one sided then you may end up burning them out without even realizing it.
To know how best to manage your manager in a sustainable fashion you have to check in with them. What are their goals? What are their challenges? This kind of mutual investment builds trust and benefits both parties. Not only will they naturally feel more enthusiastic about their support for you but you may also see opportunities to help them out which in turn may help your own career. \ \ If something is urgently important to you then you are entitled to be selfish as described in the section above, but if your manager is stretched thin it can be nice to give them space when you feel you can afford to give it. In my experience, they will appreciate and remember the kindness.
The advice above is pretty easy to follow early on in a management relationship. But as weeks turn into months and then years it is natural to fall into a routine. Having exhausted career conversations temporarily, one on one conversations can turn to cursory updates on work progress and never return.
You should resist formulaic 1:1s. Don’t wait for performance reviews to have career conversations. Don’t hesitate to have hard conversations with your manager if you are struggling or want more from them. You should aspire to have awkward conversations with them at frequent intervals.
Managing your Manager’s Manager
You should hold your managers to high standards and if those standards aren’t being met then work through the performance review process and their manager to help them improve for the benefit of you both. If the problems persist you may need to consider more drastic solutions, like switching teams.
For some, the advice laid out here may not make a big difference — but for the vast majority, effectively managing your manager can pay off in big ways.