Whilst we may typically think of the “management” part of being a manager as the relationship between yourself and those who report to you, it’s equally important to think about how to handle the relationship between you and your own manager. It’s critical to your happiness in the workplace, your career growth, and ultimately your success, as they will be judging your performance. By putting a concerted effort into getting the best out of the relationship with your own manager, you can be happier, more impactful and go further in your career.
As you begin to report higher up the org chart, you’ll naturally be dealing with people who are extremely busy. This is especially true if you are reporting to the CTO or CEO. Although you may report to someone who actively spends a scheduled portion of their week thinking about your own career growth, with the increased messiness and ambiguity at the upper echelon of organizations, this will become increasingly unlikely. Instead, you should take your relationship with your manager into your own hands. Set the agenda yourself and seek their advice, not the other way around.
Let’s start with first principles: perform the contracting exercise. We have gone into the contracting exercise in detail in a previous article, so do start there if you haven’t encountered it. If you are beginning a relationship with a new manager, then don’t wait for them to do this exercise with you; ask them to do it. Additionally, don’t worry if you have already worked for a manager for a period of time; the contracting exercise is a great refresher.
During the contracting exercise, you can confirm how best to report on progress, get support (in both directions), and discuss how your personalities may support or collide with each other. By identifying this up front, many real conflicts can be prevented by having this deeper understanding of how both of you operate.
How much communication?
Ask how much they need to know and when. I find it useful to get them to envision the following situations and see how they would best like to receive the information.
By which means, and how often, would they like to be informed of:
- Weekly and daily progress on projects that you are accountable for
- Something critically urgent happening (e.g. the entire app is down or someone wants to leave)
- Your staff’s performance, good or bad
- Administrative events such as your own sickness or needing to work from home
Some items they may not even need to know. I’ve reported to managers who like a constant flow of communication and those who prefer only to hear when something urgent happens, operating in the knowledge that all is under control unless notified otherwise.
The medium of communication is important too. Some managers may like these conversations to happen face to face, 1 to 1s, or via email digests. If you are reporting to the CTO or another board member, their time may be scarce and regular face to face catch-ups may be dramatically more effective than email or Slack. Or, the inverse could be true. Who knows without asking? Get this clear up front.
What makes them perform well?
Ask how your manager’s performance is being measured. Are they accountable for particular projects, or particular KPIs? How often are these checked and by whom? Are they accountable for a team or a division or an entire department of the business? Get clear on how your success in your own job feeds into their success.
This is also an opportunity to explore how you can grow in your role. Are there other facets of your manager’s job that could, with time, be delegated to you so that you can continue to level up? Typical items here are hiring, departmental processes, steering meetings and budgets. This discussion can produce a truly win-win situation: you can expand your own responsibility and impact on the business and they can have more time to focus on other aspects of their role that they enjoy more.
At some level, everyone is judged by delivering some project or initiative on time. A CTO will be judged by the output of the Engineering department. A team leader will be judged by the output of their team. However, are there other factors that they are being measured against that you could indirectly contribute to? There may be a push to grow the department by 20% by the end of the year. There may be a concerted effort to save money on hosting costs. There may be diversity goals in hiring for the company as a whole. See if you can contribute to these as part of your own role.
What is good performance?
In order to get a better idea of how they judge performance, ask them to identify the characteristics of a current top performer in the company. You can begin to understand the traits that they value in their organization.
Do they prefer staff who just get things done without needing steer, or do they prefer to be involved in decisions beforehand so they can oversee? Do they value those that communicate frequently about their work, or is no news good news? As a manager, tapping into their vision for their organization can promote good discussion about how you too can contribute to fulfilling that vision.
The visibility of your work
Since your manager will be delivering your performance reviews, ask them the thought process that they go through when writing it. Do they primarily measure your performance on the frequency and quality of projects that you are delivering, or is that just part of a greater picture including coaching and mentoring, the happiness of your team and success in hiring and retaining staff? By discovering this framework now, you can use it to frame your own activities in your role, and your own staff in theirs.
It is also key to ask how they measure this progress. Is it a mixture of shipped projects plus a subjective measure based on their view of your within the organization, or would they like you to keep track of your goals concretely so they can review them regularly as the year goes on?
Managing upwards is not discussed as widely as managing your own direct reports. However, understanding this relationship is critical to your success. Many individuals in an organization can see the relationship as entirely one way; that the manager will always create the best environment for the direct report to succeed so they can be a passive participant in it. I don’t think this is the best way to handle this relationship; it requires effort from both parties continually.
There can often be fundamental misunderstandings from both sides that can manifest in conflict, or even worse, in a bad performance review. Thus, in the same way as managing your own direct reports, it is also your responsibility to work on the relationship with your own manager so that you can both ultimately succeed. Ask!