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Top Tips for Managing Up (and more)

By Simon Smith,

CEO and Founder of Southern Cross Coaching & Development

Do you speak ‘Team-ese’ or ‘Boss-ese’?

When I was an officer in the British Royal Air Force, I proudly focused totally on leading my teams.

Through my then idealistic leadership lens it was the most important thing. And of course it IS - never, ever lose sight of that.

However, I was blind to another essential aspect of leadership: managing up. Whatever level you’re at, we ALL have to manage up – consultant to team lead/manager…manager to director…even the CEO to the Board. It’s a critical capability that needs to be consciously and continually developed, at every level of the organisation. I wish I’d realised the importance of it earlier, it would’ve made my life a lot easier!

“Whatever level you’re at, we ALL have to manage up.”

How many times have you tried to pitch a message, business case or idea to your boss but got the brush off or met a brick wall? Or, on the flip-side, tried to get across to your team your boss’ company driven message about meeting company KPIs or monthly or quarterly targets, etc and unwittingly surgically removed all traces of engagement and motivation from your team or people around you?

If you lead a team in particular, you’re nearly always sandwiched in what often feels like an impossible balancing act of mutually exclusive needs: trying to champion your team and meet their needs vs. delivering on your boss’ or exec’s KPIs and drivers.

It’s a common problem. Nearly every Executive Coaching program we run across the Private, Public and Not-for-Profit Sectors involves a good element of coaching around this issue. It’s a difficult challenge that people rarely get any formal or informal training in.

Top Tip for Managing-Up: be a translator. Learn to translate ‘Team-ese’ to ‘Boss-ese’, and vice-versa

‘Team-ese’ and ‘Boss-ese’ can be as different as Russian and Swahili! You need to translate your team’s needs message (‘Team-ese’) into your boss’ language (‘Boss-ese). And vice versa: ‘Boss-ese’ into ‘Team-ese’ - something your team can relate to and care about.

You need to be especially fluent in ‘Boss-ese’ if your boss has an ego the size of a small country and/or needs to look good as they’re hell-bent on getting promoted! Similarly, being a master translator of ‘Boss-ese to ‘Team-ese’ is especially important if, for example, your team genuinely cares about doing the right thing for their clients and candidates but really doesn’t give a sh!t about the exec’s reporting KPIs!

Let’s say you want to ask your boss for a small budget to run a team development and strategic planning session. You plan to tell your boss that, as things stand, the team are reacting to crises with no time to make a plan to work better. They’re overworked, stressed, and unhappy.

You go to your boss, championing your team. You’re proudly speaking fluent ‘Team-ese’, articulating their problems as they’ve told you in ‘what my team needs’ language.

You: “Hi boss, my team and I feel we need to take some time to do a strategic planning and team development session. We’ve been under the pump chasing clients for months, we don’t get time for any strategic planning or even simply time to talk to each other as humans and the team are starting to burn out. We’re having to work longer hours to meet KPIs and we are overworked and stressed. We need some time to regroup”.

“You’re speaking fluent ‘Team-ese’ – ‘what my team needs’ language.”

However, ‘Team-ese’ can often falls on deaf ears. Your boss speaks mostly ‘Boss-ese’, so can’t really understand what the problem is.

The ‘Team-ese’ often translates in your boss’ head to something like “blah blah, team unhappy as working too hard, KPIs too difficult, blah blah, not working well, blah blah, more whinging, blah blah blah”. Your boss’ internal ‘Boss-ese’ dialogue is along the lines of: “I don’t really care if the KPIs are tough and they’re a bit overworked & stressed - so am I! I’ve got the bottom line to worry about, I need to preserve my budget. Suck it up, cupcake, make time! Work longer if you can’t work smarter, I have to!”

You get the message back “sorry, we haven’t got budget for that, you’ll have to make do for now”.

That may be because there’s genuinely no budget. But it’s often because your message wasn’t in ‘Boss-ese’ and simply wasn’t heard and understood properly.

“Your message needs to be in ‘Boss-ese’ – what your boss needs - to be heard and understood properly.”

Translate your message into ‘Boss-ese’ and you’ll have much more success. Think about what your boss needs to hear from the ‘what’s in it for me as the boss’ perspective, which is often what they have to say to their manager.

For example, “Hi boss, I know you’re under the pump to meet your KPIs and budget from above. I think we can make that happen faster and more effectively if the team took a short ‘time out’ to do some planning to refocus our strategy on targetting who are the clients most likely to be recruiting. That could also get your boss off your back a bit! I reckon a half day with an external facilitator would be the most effective use of time and resources. What’s your thinking around that?”

Your boss hears your message clearer as it’s more in Boss-ese. They also feel you understand their problems and the pressure they’re under, which is a lot more of a positive message for you and will stand you in good stead regardless. You may also just tip the scales and get the boss on your side advocating for budget, or at least starting a positive conversation about it.

“And not just your boss. Your boss’ boss is a critical part of the equation too”

Remember, it’s not just about your boss. Your boss’ boss is a critical part of the equation too. If you can, think not only in your boss’ shoes, but also their boss’ shoes. Think also about putting at least some of the message in your boss’ Boss-ese language: in the language of ‘what’s in it for my boss’ boss (because she’s the one who’s going to decide on your boss’ next promotion/ bonus/ etc - which, like it or not, is the reality of what many managers are interested in).

So next time you want to give a message upwards, go take a lesson in Boss-ese. Give your boss the information in a language that they understand and can pass upwards to the next level. Remember too, to translate your manager’s ‘Boss-ese’ message into ‘Team-ese’, or else your message to your team may also fall on deaf ears.

I know from my past mistakes that the earlier you learn this in your career, the better. Managing up in this way is a critical part of leadership at every level from the moment you step into a leadership role - and before you actually get promoted too. It often becomes THE critical deciding factor in your ultimate success and your promotion – and your team’s ultimate success. Even more so as you climb further up the ladder when you are unlikely to progress without it.

93% of all 1-1 Executive Coaching programs we do at SCC&D contain a good element of coaching around Managing Up (at every level). Make sure Managing Up is on your development agenda!

Our experience and research demonstrate that our unique, pioneering T.O.A.D™ Coaching Leadership model works extremely effectively in Managing Up.

Simon Smith is the CEO and Founder of Southern Cross Coaching & Development, a multi-award-winning Leadership, Executive Coaching, Team and People Development company that uses the principles of applied neuroscience in all its services to deliver outstanding outcomes in the real world.

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