Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, March 12, 2007

Common Management Problems - managing up

People's inability to delegate properly is one of the most common complaints at the various management training workshops I have run, a failure I have discussed elsewhere.

A related but less recognised problem is the inability of many staff to manage up. By managing up, I simply mean structuring what you do and how you do it to make life easier for you and your boss.

Why is this important? Well, the delegation problems that staff complain about are difficult in part because staff have no direct control over the manager, they just have to put up with it. By contrast, staff can control what they do and how they do it. This includes managing the boss to make life a little easier for all. So how do you do this?

Take Personal Responsibility: The starting point is to take personal responsibility for managing those things that you can control, focusing on the way you do things. This sounds simple, but the most common complaint among bosses - and especially from those who are in fact bad delegators - is that staff will not take responsibility.

There is a chicken and egg problem here in that bad delegation makes staff less willing to assume responsibility, thus adding to the problems created by the poor delegation.

Management Styles: The next point is to look at the way your boss works. Each person has an individual working style determined by the mix of character and experience. You have to fit the way you approach the boss within this style.

To illustrate by example. In an earlier post in this series on the over enthusiastic boss I talked about bosses who overflow with enthusiasm and new ideas, moving onto new things before past things are completed. Here I said in part:

If you are not clear just what is intended by the discussion, ask. If you are being asked to do something, but it is not clear to you just what, again ask. If you are working on a priority task, then say that. Finally, if you are finding the whole approach creating really serious problems for you, then have a private chat with the boss.

Making Things Easy for the Boss: The nature of much professional services work is individual, with a focus on individual performance. I do complain about this and the way it affects overall firm performance, but it is a reality that has to be dealt with.

Under individual pressure, people are less willing to invest time in managing others. The easier you can make things for your boss in managing you, the better the outcomes. What you do here has to be tailored to the boss's style, but there are a number of very practical things that you can do that generally work.

Perhaps the single most important thing is to adopt a structured approach so that your boss knows what he/she is dealing with in managing you. Bosses form views anyway, but you can determine or even change those views.

When asked to do something, ask questions so that you properly understand the task as well as any time lines attached to it. Summarise at the end to ensure that you are clear.

If you strike problems on a job, find yourself unclear or are likely to miss a deadline, let the boss know in time to allow a new approach to be worked out.

When you go to the boss with a problem or to report on progress, present in a clear and structured way. Don't just say I have a problem. Explain what the problem is, put forward any suggested solutions that you have. This makes it easier for the boss to understand and to respond in an effective way.

Be clear about the purpose of any communication with the boss, explain what you hope to achieve.

By the nature of the beast, most bosses feel instinctively obliged to provide solutions, answers. That's fine if that's what you want. But you may in fact simply want to discuss ideas, issues to help your own thinking. Things can get very messy indeed if the boss automatically moves into problem solving mode, leaving both sides completely dissatisfied. So tell the boss the purpose of the conversation.

Remember the boss is a person too. Here have a look at the first piece I did in this series on the isolation of being boss, a post written very much from a boss's perspective.

Most people like some degree of social interaction. They like to feel that people are interested in them. So take some time to chat, to find out what the boss has been doing. Your approach here has to be tempered by their personality and style.

Finally, try to structure your formal interactions so as to minimise time demands on the boss.

This is partially a matter of approach as already discussed, presenting things in a structured way. But you can also do things like working out how much time you think you need and then making an appointment, thus creating a structured meeting. You can also often wait until you have several things to discuss, again minimising disruption.

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