Project Practitioners > Managing Up Part II - What Motivates Your Boss?

Managing Up Part II - What Motivates Your Boss?

By Ed Reynolds

It goes without saying that managing up involves understanding how your boss gets paid and what business objectives are most important to them. But do you know what really motivates them? What they fear? Do you know what they really want from you? Managing up is the art of answering these questions. The last time I discussed managing my boss' tendency to "think out loud," and the churn it could cause. Today I want to bring a couple "drivers" into focus.

I worked for a VP in one company that really didn't want to know what I was doing day to day. All Frank wanted from me was loyalty. I could do my job any way I wanted as long as I stood by his side, prepared him for executive reviews and made him look good …and never, ever signaled disagreement with him or desire to be anywhere else in the world but by his side. The problem is ,guys like this don’t start their tenure as your boss by telling you this. You find out when you make a mistake. While working for Frank, I identified a functional gap in our field organization that was impeding our sales. I convinced Frank’s peer VP in the field to fill this gap. Unbeknownst to me, he asked Frank to transfer me into the position to get it going. When Frank asked if I was willing to move over and help out, I said “yes.” “Disloyal! Too eager to leave!” Frank cried. He embargoed the transfer and made it clear I had no more future on his team.

Another guy I worked for really needed to feel in control. We had these weekly operational meetings that all his direct reports attended. I thought this would be a great forum to bring up new ideas – new product concepts, new ways of operating, changes in strategy. But Doug always seemed to push back. For a while, I just quit coming up with new ideas altogether – maybe he felt we had enough on our plate. But when I had an idea for a breakthrough competitive strategy, I brought it to his attention in a 1:1. He was very receptive, even to the point of strategizing how we could get executive support and funding for the program. It turns out that Doug simply hated surprises – good or bad. To be in control, he needed to get all new ideas in private, where he could digest them and figure out if he liked them or not. After that, Doug and I worked exceptionally well together both in private and in public forums.

Managing up involves understanding your boss’ personality, what drives them, what they fear and even who their professional allies and enemies are within the company. It isn’t a science; it is an art form. My recommendation is to spend as much 1:1 time as you can with your boss and to pay very close attention to how they behave in public. The differences in public and private behavior will give you lots of clues to help you pick your way through the fog.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

One-to-one time with my boss is rare. His personality is to keep moving - taking phone calls, talking to others. So the recommendation for spending one-to-one time with my boss is not practical.

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