Justin Locke
Justin Locke

Managing Your Manager

How it can enhance your leadership skills.

May 2, 2011
by Justin Locke

There is a fair amount of advice out there about applying for a job and climbing the ladder of an organization, but there is one bit of advice seldom seen, and that is, how to manage the people who are in power over you.

At first glance, this probably sounds contradictory. After all, it is your manager's job to manage you, right? Sounds kind of silly to think that it's your job to manage them.

Well, you might want to reconsider.

It is easy to be fascinated by the power some people hold, but if you take a moment to look more carefully, you will be amazed at just how vulnerable these powerful people are ... and therein lies massive opportunity.

Yes, people in power can be very intimidating, but once you look past the fa├žade, you usually discover that they project their "command persona" because they have to. Underneath, they may be confused, stressed out or even scared to death. They are often under enormous pressure, and are usually frustrated by a lack of resources — and this includes not having people who are willing or able to give them the assistance they need.

It is easy to assume that such people want your eager obedience. It is also very easy to assume that your manager always has a clear idea of what your job is and how you should do it. In real life, the average overloaded manager seldom has more than a vague idea of just exactly what needs doing, and even less of an idea of how to get it done. The average subordinate or staff member usually fails to see past this.

It was not until I became a manager myself that I discovered just how incredibly unaware I had been of what the average manager needs. When I found myself with a bunch of people working for me, I was frustrated endlessly. They were all very willing to follow any order, but what I really needed were people who could see their role in the big picture, see things from my perspective, take on some responsibility and make things happen without my leading them through every single step. I was looking for dependable lieutenants, not passive foot soldiers. It was always a struggle to find people who could take on some of the massive weight that comes with being in a managerial role.

Well, one day I got a chance to go back in time to being an underling again. I was asked to be a "score reader" for television broadcasts of the Boston Pops. This was a low-paying grunt job, but it sounded like fun so I took it anyway.

As some CPA Insider™ readers may already know, a "score reader's" job is to, essentially, tap one's finger on the sheet music contained in "the conductor's score," and allow the director to keep the planned camera shots in sync with the music.

Delivering a Service

Turned out I really enjoyed doing this gig. I didn't want to get promoted to another job, as I liked not having the pressure of being in charge for a change, but I did want to cement my position and get paid more money. How to do it? Well, I was essentially working for the director. He was "my manager," and he was also "all powerful," but he was also under enormous pressure. So instead of thinking about what I wanted from him, and "selling myself" by being super obedient, I took notice of things that he needed and didn't have.

For example, he kept walking into the next office to use the pencil sharpener, so I bought him an electric one for his desk. He rarely had time to run to the vending machine, so I made sure I always had a bottle of water for him. On the "show days" when he didn't have time to eat dinner, I would get him a sandwich. To save him time, I made sure all the scores were put in his bag in program order. If there was some confusion with the scores, I would talk to the librarian and fix it.

These are all examples of delivering a service that he needed but never thought to ask. He did not know that I would be willing or able to do any of these things, as none of them were in the contract. There was no precedent, tradition or detailed job description. I just did the things I would have wanted MY assistant to do if I was in charge and was too busy to do them or even think of them.

We used to make jokes that I had become his "minion." So be it. Yes, I was a minion, but I had become an indispensable minion. My original job description was just to tap my finger on a score, but I kept my eyes open and kept plugging leaks in the wall of necessary services until I had made myself both unique and essential. Over the years, my fee increased by a factor of 10 (no kidding), and this director wrote me into all his contracts for other TV shows he directed around the country. His clients had to hire me when they hired him. Ka-ching!

The CPA Equation

I did not make this happen by being obedient. I made it happen by approaching the situation as a manager. I managed my manager. I facilitated his workflow. I anticipated his needs. I checked for mistakes. I removed inefficiencies. Instead of focusing on his power and my lack of it, I did the opposite. That, and not passive obedience, made me worth a whole lot more.

Giving your clients more value for which they pay, makes it a whole lot easier to charge more the next time you negotiate your fee. I did not insist on more money, I persisted in giving them more value, and the money just followed the value.

The world is filled with people who are eager to be hired by the hour, who claim that they will do "whatever you want" if you just tell them. But for many tasks, it just takes too long to come up with procedures and then assign and explain them to a passive person. It's easier to just go without or do it yourself. I always thought my managers wanted obedience, but the good ones want — and will pay much more — for the exact opposite.

As this one story shows, no matter where you are and no matter what your level, there is a lack of leadership everywhere, and you can start by being a leader today.

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Justin Locke is an author and speaker. He spent 18 seasons playing the bass with the Boston Pops, and he is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity, an amusing look at how to be more successful by going against the conventional wisdom. You can find out more about his presentations on overcoming cultural inertia by visiting his website.

© Justin Locke