How to Manage Your Boss

To become indispensable, learn to anticipate your manager’s needs

A man juggles 4 apples in the air while blindfolded.
Photo: Francesco Mondino/Moment Open/Getty

MManaging your boss is a skill no one ever told you you needed. But it’s an essential one for both your career success and satisfaction. A productive relationship with your manager can mean getting to work on more meaningful projects, being chosen for more opportunities, and gaining respect within the office, all of which will help drive you forward. Here’s how to “manage up” in a way that makes your boss’s professional life easier and yours better.

Overperform

Sure, you already do everything in your job description. But managing your boss means going beyond that. It means doing the unexpected.

You should:

  • Be a resource. Do the work your boss would like to, but can’t.
  • Have your finger on the pulse. Gather information from the front lines, meet with teammates often, and speak to customers frequently.
  • Constantly be furthering your knowledge. Take time to research, gain insights, and develop a deeper understanding of the organization to help your boss make better decisions.
  • Elevate others. Build up those around you.
  • Model empathy. Curiously ask colleagues about their work, push back gently, praise progress, generously take on work, and gracefully give feedback.
  • Keep your word. Most people fail to do what they say.
  • Bring fresh ideas. Break the monotony of everyday work by bringing new perspectives and a dash of joy.

Stay in constant contact

Develop a habit of frequently sharing information with your manager to help them better understand what projects the team is working on and how each one is progressing.

In his leadership-advice book The Score Takes Care of Itself, the late NFL coach Bill Walsh wrote: “Whether they read it or not, flood your [boss] with information that is documented — projections, evaluations, reports on progress, and status updates. Then ask for periodic meetings.”

Managing up is a bit of a balancing act, requiring you to focus on your work, while simultaneously anticipating your boss’s needs. But if you make it a priority, you will inevitably become indispensable.

It might feel like overkill but, Walsh argued, that’s the point: “In a very professional way,” he wrote, “force them to understand that you are doing everything you possibly can.”

In staying close to your boss, you’re not just giving them insight into your work; you’re also learning how to best work with them. Find out the answers to these questions: When do they need time and space? What do they dislike most about their role, and how could I help? How do they make decisions?

Start thinking like them

Take some of the mental load off your boss. For instance, you might ask for permission to schedule recurring one-on-one meetings with them so they don’t have to set up a new one every week. And before each conversation, anticipate what they will ask of you. Research issues ahead of time so you can bring a well-informed perspective to every conversation. Your manager goes to bat for the team, so explain to them exactly what the team needs ahead of time and present them with options to choose from.

You should also familiarize yourself with your boss’ strengths, and adjust for their blind spots. Ask yourself: What information are they missing that I can help obtain? How could I help them better prepare for important meetings? What skills does my boss lack that I can assist with?

Finally, go one step further and think like your boss’s boss. Dedicate time to understanding the larger organizational goals, and which individuals and pieces of information influence the ultimate decision makers. One way to learn this is by analyzing past decisions made by the organization: What were the circumstances? What were the alternatives? Who made the final call and why? Understanding the history and internal logic of your company from the top down will give you a better idea of the framework your manager uses to make decisions.

Managing up is a bit of a balancing act, requiring you to focus on your work, while simultaneously anticipating your boss’s needs. But if you make it a priority, you will inevitably become indispensable.

Start setting yourself apart. If there’s an unsexy project no one wants, ask for it. If there’s a meeting no one’s willing to attend, go. If there’s an issue with a teammate, ask if you can help defuse it. Tackle the big, ugly problems everyone avoids, and see how far you go.

Former attorney, 2x entrepreneur, organizational consultant and writer.

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