Managing Your Boss's Boss

Can you walk a mile in a manager's shoes?

Image: Carl Wiens

You’ve often told your colleagues, ”If those guys upstairs knew what we know down here, they’d do things completely differently.” Now here’s your chance. Your boss brings you to a meeting with a bunch of C-level executives. Instead of just throwing you a technical question or two, the executives ask you to tell them what you think, their questions moving further and further from your areas of expertise. The CEO is listening to you attentively, your boss is watching you warily, but all you can think about is the bead of sweat forming on your forehead. Your dream moment is about to turn into your worst nightmare. What should you do?

Unfortunately, you should have taken a moment beforehand to consider things from management’s perspective. Let’s do that right now, shall we?

If talking to the boss is hard, remember that the feeling is mutual. In fact, talking to engineers is one of the biggest challenges a boss faces. Engineers know important things beyond the boss’s ken; at the same time, the boss sees the big picture. As an engineer, you have a different perspective, and so you have to work to discern what management wants. That task involves taking into account profitability, long-term company objectives, and—finally—corporate politics.

In a nutshell, here’s what senior managers want:

Real-time advice: Be willing to give advice on the spot, even after receiving very little information. Many management decisions involve things that don’t merit exhaustive study or rigorous analysis; other decisions must be made quickly, before a market opportunity slips away. In both cases, you must be prepared to make decisions without having all the facts.

Candor: Tell management what you think, support your position, and give only as much substantiation as is needed at the time. Candor is truth with an attitude.

What-next ideas: Senior managers must look beyond the completion of your project, so try to offer them sensible suggestions about what the next steps or increments might be. Providing options to consider is among the most highly valued contributions a trusted strategic advisor can make.

Management mindâ¿¿set: To be an effective advisor, you have to ask yourself some very powerful personal questions about whether you fit into this environment.

1. Do you study leadership?

2. Do you care about what senior managers think, do, and need?

3. Can you keep a firm grip on your own ego in an environment filled with even bigger ones?

4. Can you learn to tolerate the fact that some decisions are based on politics? Can you accept that the technically right solution isn’t always the right organizational solution?

5. Can you put yourself in senior management’s shoes and look at the world through their eyes?

If your answer is yes to all these questions, I know we’ll be seeing you at the table.

About the Author

JAMES E. LUKASZEWSKI is a corporate consultant and author of Why Should the Boss Listen to You? The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor (Jossey_Bass, 2008). He coaches IEEE's incoming volunteer leadership each year.

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