One of the key determinants of our income is how well we get on with our boss. Even in very senior positions, nearly everyone has a boss, so learning to manage this relationship well is an important skill.
The best way to get on with your boss is to make them successful. Ryan Holiday describes it as the "canvas strategy". He recommends finding and making "canvases for others to paint on" or as the Romans described it, become an anteambulo, a person who clears the path in front of their patron.
Here are some practical tips to managing up:
1. Understand what makes your boss tick
The Harvard Business Review suggests that the best place to start is to understand your boss' goals and objectives, pressures and issues, strengths, weaknesses, blind spots and preferred work style. Seeing your boss as fallible, just like the rest of us, allows you the opportunity to fill in their gaps and complement their strengths.
2. Reframe your boss as your client
In her book, Not Just Lucky Jamila Rizvi recommends you stop thinking of your boss as someone whose primary purpose is to support, guide and direct you. Instead, think of your boss as your client whose needs you need to help solve. In the same way as with clients, think about issues from your boss' perspective and even if you think it might upset your boss, communicate bad news promptly, to avoid nasty surprises. Just like a good business, you want your boss to feel that you are indispensable.
3. "Do or do not. There is no try"
There will be jobs your boss will assign that will be enjoyable, and for which you are well suited. However, there will often be tasks which are boring, mundane or you just don't like doing. Forbes columnist Rich Karlgaard suggests that if you want your boss to trust you with the big things, you need to demonstrate your capability with all the small things. Take Yoda's advice, and don't just try, commit yourself completely, consistently demonstrating belief and energy. This will make your boss more inclined to think of you first when higher value work becomes available. Enthusiasm also goes a long way to help your boss forgive mistakes and missteps as you learn.
4. Don't be offended by 'Please take care of this'
In a recent interview, Rizvi explains the expression "please take care of this", is a signal that your boss has limited mental bandwidth to deal with an issue and trusts your judgement to resolve. However, bosses suffer from the "curse of knowledge" and they assume that everything that they know is also in your head.
While the amorphous email request "please take care of this" might seem galling, take it as a compliment and then ask for more information. Go back to your boss with a plan for how you propose to tackle the issue and the timeline for delivery. Also, give your boss insight into how you will prioritise this relative to other work you have been allocated. A problem-solving attitude will be appreciated by your boss and will elicit the extra specificity you need to do a good job, without undermining your commitment to being enthusiastic.
5. Ask for a pay rise or promotion based on outcomes not effort, your worth not your needs
One of the biggest points of friction in an organisation is remuneration and there is often a mismatch of expectations. Rizvi points out that there is nothing wrong with asking for a pay rise or a promotion if you feel you have earned it. However, how hard you have worked or the validity of your needs are not relevant to your boss. Demonstrating the value you have created and the positive outcomes that make you indispensable is what will persuade a good boss.
Managing up does not mean sucking up. Helping your boss succeed, allows you to learn along the way and creates space for you to progress into. Holiday suggests that if you can subjugate your ego, you will appreciate that the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas dictates the painting.