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Managing Up

By Wendy Werner

No one has more impact on the kind of work you do, and the opportunities you receive, than the person you work for — whether a senior partner, group leader or client. Even when you move on, they can make or break future opportunities as a referer or reference. So it’s just common sense to “manage up” and make the most of each relationship.

The Basics of Managing Up

You want to learn as much as you can from your bosses so that you become a truly valuable asset to them — and you want to leave behind the best impression possible. Here are the basics.

  • Don’t expect your boss to change. Years ago, I had a boss who drove me crazy. I kept hoping (and, yes, pushing) for him to change. It didn’t occur to me that  I might need to change my behavior. Once I finally accepted that he was unlikely to change, I could start thinking about how to improve my own work situation and develop a new strategy for dealing with my boss. I became both more strategic in my behavior and more observant of his behavior. The result? An improved working relationship and much less frustration on my part. (Perhaps on his part, as well!)
  • Learn by observing. We often look at bosses’ or clients’ behavior as a series of random events. In fact, they are almost always part of clear and directed patterns of behavior. Become an astute observer and ask others for their observations. Once you learn more about how people behave and figure out their hot buttons, you can implement strategies that set you in good stead. For one, once you recognize those hot buttons, you can be sure never to press them again.
  • Pay attention to work style. Learning their work style is one of the best ways to manage your boss. You should be able to figure out what matters most to them, and how and when to approach them with questions or ideas. For example, do they work on assignments in a deliberate manner, or do they work in fits and starts? Are they proactive or do they wait until the last-minute? What time of day are they most productive? What kind of hours do they keep? Do they like to communicate in person, on the phone or by e-mail?
  • Solicit feedback. If you want to know how you’re doing, you have to ask. Seek specific feedback on assignments. But be prepared to hear things you may not like. Ask for clarification, put into action what you have heard and follow up so you know whether you are making progress.

If you’re lucky, some of your bosses will be so wonderful you’ll want to spend every moment basking in the glow of their brilliance. But in the real world, your bosses will be some combination of brilliant jerk and well-intentioned basket case — or just the average Jane or Joe with little time for you — and you will be tempted to avoid them. Instead, “manage up” and try to gain something meaningful from the relationship.

If it all goes well, someday someone will focus on managing up to you!

Related Dispatches

Illustration ©Thinkstock

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Wendy Werner

Wendy Werner was an acclaimed photographer, a sought-after career strategist and social justice advocate. A longtime career coach and practice management consultant at Werner Associates, Wendy most recently served as ArchCity Defenders’ founding board chair, stewarding the organization for over 12 years as it became an established force for justice in the St. Louis region. She was a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and served on several ABA Law Practice Division boards, including as chair of the Publishing Board. Wendy died at her home in Saint Louis on January 3, 2022, after a long battle with cancer. She was 69.


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