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Leading up: How to manage your boss

By Mark Tutton, CNN
Leading from the middle could help you hold onto your job.
Leading from the middle could help you hold onto your job.
  • Managing up means being proactive in looking out for your boss and organization
  • You may not be the boss, but you can still take the initiative and lead from the middle
  • If you want to manage your manager you need to understand what motivates them

London, England (CNN) -- These days there's no such thing as a safe job, but one way to improve your chances of staying employed is by "managing up," experts say.

Managing up means taking the initiative in showing leadership at work. "Ask not what your manager can do for you, but what you can do for your manager," is the guiding principle.

Professor Allan Cohen of Babson College, Massachusetts, is the author of "Influence without Authority." He told CNN, "If you can help your boss be more productive, it's good for the organization and it's good for you."

And if you're being proactive in helping your boss and your organization, your contributions won't go unnoticed.

Mariette Edwards, Executive Coach with Star Maker Coaching, based in Georgia, in the U.S., told CNN, "Managing up can be a differentiator between you and others, especially now there's a chance that your name may be on that layoff list.

"The person who is looking out for their boss and showcasing what they can do for the company is less likely to be on that list."

So how do you go about managing your manager?

1. Understand your boss

Ask yourself, what makes your boss tick at work? Is it control and predictability, or exciting ideas and new initiatives?

"First, you have to understand what's important to your boss, what they care about, and what they wake up in the night worrying about," said Cohen.

But you don't have to go foraging through your boss's trash to find clues to their psychological makeup. What your boss says and does will tell you all you need to know.

"Pay attention to the person you work for, because that person is telling you an awful lot about how to work with them," Edwards told CNN.

People listen more to what you're saying if they think you actually care about them.
--Professor Allan Cohen

2. Lead from the middle

You many not be the boss, but that doesn't mean you can't think like one.

John Baldoni is a leadership development consultant and author of "Lead your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up." He told CNN he prefers the term "leading up" to managing up.

"Leading up means adopting the perspective of a CEO with the authority of a middle manager," said Baldoni.

"Look for opportunities to effect positive change, grow the business, or get more out of the team. Think holistically about how your actions as a middle manager can affect the whole organization."

3. Build credibility

You won't be able to influence your manager unless you are credible, and the way to build credibility is by being good at your job, says Cohen.

Baldoni told CNN, "If you are someone who can get things done and your colleagues and bosses trust you, they will know you are a positive influence and they will come to you."

4. It's not about you

Managing up may be good for your career, but it's not about brown nosing -- it's about doing what's right for your organization.

"Some people think managing up is sucking up, but it's not," Edwards told CNN. "Yes, it ends up having a tremendous impact on your own PR, but you have to put other people first, and that's something a lot of people don't understand."

Cohen agrees. "People listen more to what you're saying if they think you actually care about them and are interested in their general welfare," he said.

5. Take action

It's not enough to just turn up for work and wait for your manager to lead. You need to be proactive in your relationship towards your manager, and your organization as a whole.

"Act upon what it is that needs to be done," said Baldoni. "Initiate a new program, take a lead in product development, perhaps the reorganization of a business.

"Be front and center on an issue that will benefit not simply yourself, but the whole organization."

6. Dealing with a difficult boss

Edwards says that dealing with a difficult boss is sometimes just a matter of communicating in a way they understand. Technical people respond to hard data, creative types prefer hearing about big ideas. But some bosses just won't respond to leadership from below.

"Not everybody can be managed or led up," Baldoni told CNN.

"A bully boss will feel threatened by anyone who is showing initiative. I would not advise anyone to try to lead a bully boss."