When it comes to being perceived as effective at your job, many of us have followed the advice that “to be successful you must learn to manage up”—i.e., keep your boss happy and you will never have to worry. Though this maxim contains a shade of truth, it is far from being the only answer.
Here are two scenarios.
Your peers love your work, your subordinates think you are a terrific manager, and, most importantly, your customers love you—but your boss doesn’t. Do you think you will get fired? Never!
Alternatively, your boss thinks you walk on water, but your customers don’t, and neither do your peers or your subordinates. Do you think your boss will save you? Same answer—never!
Of course, this is not an “either/or” choice—you need to pay attention to both. However, when faced with a choice, I strongly recommend spending the vast amount of your attention and energy on always meeting the expectations of your customers (including both your internal customers and your revenue-producing customers). Quite simply, if your customers aren’t happy, no one is happy. The people whom you are managing, either directly or indirectly, should be next in line for your attention, as they will be performing the necessary work to satisfy the needs of your customers. Lastly, you need to pay attention to your peers. Your peers should always be your internal sounding board. They should be the ones whom you can ask for support and bounce ideas off of before presenting them to customers. Frequently, our peers are managing people whose input and work product are also needed to satisfy customers.
Now, I can already hear some of you saying, “But you don’t know my boss! If I don’t keep him happy, I’ve had it!” While this is a natural feeling for people to have regarding their employer, in more than thirty years of studying managers I have met very few who aren’t ultimately swayed by results. Remember, they too may have a boss. Does this mean that they can’t make your life miserable? No. But, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel miserable unless you choose to feel miserable.
I hope I have at least got you thinking at this point that simply focusing on “managing up” probably doesn’t make sense and could even be fatal to your career.
So what should you do?
The right answer is that you have to do both. Manage your customers first, your subordinates second, your peers third, and your boss last. Of course, in the real world it is not that simple or linear. The key, above all else, is to understand clearly what your customer requirements are and to effectively communicate those requirements to everyone concerned. In most cases, the next step will probably be a meeting or a conference call that allows you to lay out all of the particular details and gather everyone’s input. This approach forces transparency and, if you are unfortunate enough to have a lousy boss, it pretty much keeps them at bay.
But what if your customer is your boss? In that case, the answer is simple— manage up!