Partnering with your manager

March 13, 2017. Filed under management 127

At my first software job, I chatted 1:1 with my manager twice in two years, including my first year where I was remote and three time zones away. In that situation you become self-managing, or you get let go for inactivity, and somehow I found things to do. (I'd like to prepend useful to things, but as best I can tell, my team's software was unilaterally thrown away, so that's hard to justify.)

Something that experience didn't equip me well to do is partner with my manager. I came away without a mental model for what management does, let alone how you would work with them. It's been a rocky path for me to figure out a healthier approach, and if you've faced similar a struggle, hopefully these ideas will help.

To partner successfully with your manager:

  1. You need her to know a few things about you,
  2. You need to know a few things about her,
  3. Occasionally update the things you know about each other.

Things your manager should know about you:

  • What problems you're trying solve.
  • How you're trying to solve it.
  • That you're making progress. (Specifically, that you're not stuck.)
  • What you prefer to work on. (So they can staff you properly.)
  • How busy you are. (So they know if you can take on an opportunity that comes up.)
  • What your professional goals and growth areas are.
  • Where you are between bored and challenged.
  • How you believe you're being measured. (A rubric, company values, some KPIs, etc.)

Some managers are easier to keep informed than others, and success hinges on finding the communication mechanism that works for them. The approach that I've found work well is:

  1. Maintain a document with this information, that you keep updated and shared with your manager. For some managers, this will be enough! Mission accomplished.
  2. Sprinkle this information into your 1:1s, focusing on information gaps (you're not seeing support around a growth area, you're too busy or not busy enough). Success is filling in information gaps, not reciting a mantra.
  3. At some cadence, maybe quarterly, write up a self-reflection which covers each of those aspects. (I've been experimenting with a "career narrative" format that is essentially a stack of quarterly self-reflections.) Share that with your manager, and maybe your peers too!

A few managers seemingly just don't care, and I've always found that those managers do care, and are too stressed to participate in successful communication. This leads to the other key aspect of managing up: knowing some things about your manager and her needs.

Here are some good things to know:

  • What are her current priorities? Particularly, problems and key initiatives. Often when I get asked this question I can't answer it directly, because what I'm focused on is people related, but it's a warning sign if your manager never answers it (either because they don't know, or they are always working on people issues).
  • How stressed are they? How busy are they? Do they feel like they have time to grow in her role or are they grinding?
  • Is there anything you can do to help? This is particularly valuable for managers who don't have strong delegation instincts.
  • What is her management's priority for her?
  • What is she trying to improve on themselves, and what are her goals? This is particularly valuable to know if she appears stuck, because you may be able to help unstick her. (Especially in terms of redefining impact in terms of work your team can accomplish versus growing team size, which is a frequent source of stickiness!)

It's relatively uncommon for managers to be unwilling to answer these kinds of questions (either they're open and glad to share, or are willing to speak about themselves), but it is fairly common for them to not know the answers. In those cases, each of these can be a pretty expansive topic for a 1:1.

How do you partner with your manager?