You need to become adept at dealing with the high-ups. Photo: Shutterstock

Thursday 26th November 2015

Managing up

How can you improve your relationship with the boss?

A Gallup study earlier this year revealed that 50% of employees quit their job to get away from their manager. Not surprising, really – the report also found that only three in ten bosses have the natural or coachable talent to manage people.

But what do you do when this non-managing person happens to be your CEO? The person where the buck stops? The one who, in theory, everyone should look up to?

As an HR Director, I’ve met more than one CEO who lacks the essentials to be a great people leader. It’s rare to find someone who truly understands the importance of a people-centric organisation and is able to be a great people leader at the same time.

These are actually two very different characteristics.

Over the years, as data has helped support our cause and the profession has gained serious credibility, more senior executives have come to appreciate the true value of people.

Engagement is no longer the fluffy buzzword it once was. For many it’s now a fundamental driver of the bottom-line, and the very first thing on the boardroom agenda.

However, it’s difficult to understand the importance and, at the same time, be a great people leader. Which, in my mind, is essentially why the role of a People Director was created. To be the CEO’s number two – to help them appear to be that person. Coach and nurture them towards this goal. And if there’s no hope, be that person for them.

Having a healthy, positive relationship with your boss makes work-life a damn sight easier. And the simplest way to achieve this is to pick the right boss to start with.

Performance agitation

Interviews are a two-way street: they’re for our benefit just as much as the employer’s. If you don’t want to continually manage up, then make sure you and the boss, whether that’s the CEO or not, share the same values.

Luckily for me, I’m currently in a business where the man at the top, my boss Tom Byng, is both a true believer of people power and a fantastic visionary and leader. People at every level of the business look up to, listen to, and aspire to be like Tom.

Sure, it makes my role far easier. Though at times I still need to subtly manage upwards.

Sometimes it’s about being an agitator about performance and saying the things that others are afraid to say. Sometimes it’s bringing objectivity into situations and into relationships with direct reports.

Other times, it’s challenging assumptions being made in relation to the overall business strategy – playing devil’s advocate.

Bullshitting or telling your boss what they want to hear isn’t sustainable. You have to have the balls to speak up, in the right way. Especially if you disagree.

Know the business

It’s OK not to see eye to eye, as long as you challenge in a respectful, productive way.

To do this, it helps to have a great relationship with your manager. The oil of any business is relationships and as that old adage goes, ‘Do unto others…’

So take time to build your relationship inside, and if appropriate outside, of work. If you want to make it easier to get things ‘approved’ or ‘signed off’ you need to understand what makes your boss tick.

Of course the best way to develop a great relationship is to be a role model in the business, to deliver great results and to make your CEOs life that little bit easier.

When you’re reporting into the CEO, knowing your business is vital. Understanding the contexts and levers of commercial performance not only ensures you can talk the talk, you’ll also be able to deliver results which make a significant impact across the business.

Adapting the way you communicate is also one of the greatest lessons I’ve learnt in my career and a huge benefit when it comes to managing both vertically and horizontally. Speak like they speak. Write like they write. This isn’t about becoming a clone: it’s about limbic synchrony – matching and mirroring.

The strongest relationships are built on trust, so do what you say you will. Or do it better. That way you’ll gain their trust, confidence and have no problem managing up should the time arise.

About the author

Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a commercial and pragmatic HR professional. Currently People Director for fast-growing restaurant brand Byron, Mike is well known for his ability to work strategically with private equity and corporate investors in order to boost turnover through highly engaged people.