Advice from an ex-BCG Consultant – Four Ways to Manage Your Boss

Yes, you’ve heard me right — how do you manage your boss? As a young professional, it may not occur to you that for the sake of your own career development, you do need to manage your boss i.e. upward management. The dangers of not doing so – misaligned expectations, early career burnout and disillusionment. It’s like starting a romantic relationship with a high-maintenance partner on the wrong footing… you end up high and dry because you didn’t set the rules of engagement. Only difference – you are at the bigger risk of getting ditched.

David vs. Goliath, not.

I had the opportunity of speaking with David Thian, who was previously a Management Consultant with Boston Consulting Group (BCG). He shared with me key insights for career success for those in their initial forays of the consulting world. Focusing on David’s insights on ‘Upward Management’ together with my inputs, here are the four ways that young professionals should take note of in managing their bosses.

1. Seek alignment on what’s expected of you

To be aligned means you have a common understanding and agreement. Oftentimes, what happens for young professionals is the lack of initiative to clarify and running on assumptions. There is a sort of mutual mystification as to what your boss expects of you. A rule of thumb is to over-communicate rather than under-communicate. Take the onus to ask questions and raise your concerns early on rather than waiting till the eleventh hour when you’re knee-deep into a project. On the other hand, also balance your need to have all grounds covered lest you become too mentally crippled to start.

2. Know your boss well

A useful tool will be the Extended-DISC profiling tool. Most corporations invest in tools like this to provide intra-company intelligence to raise the collective awareness within working groups. Is your boss a heavy-hitter and results driven at all costs? (D) Or is he more cautious, meticulous and has a high need to know? (C) Knowing your boss’s working style and communicating and working in sync with his, is critical. Even if it means you stepping out of your comfort zone.

David’s suggestions: Understand your boss’ working style – micromanager or hands-off guy?

1. Micromanager: give him regular short updates to keep him off your back. Develop a workplan and storyline early so you can show him you’re constantly on-track

2. Hands-off: Be highly independent, check own work thoroughly, proactively schedule meetings with him to update him on your stuff

3. Be proactive in tackling problems and creating solutions

Chances are, your boss will be tied up at higher-level strategic issues at his level so while he knows he is managing your career growth, you don’t want to make a babysitter out of him. When you are faced with a problem, think through what can be possible solutions given your resource constraints and be methodological in communicating that with your boss. If the problems are beyond you, consider consolidating them according to the priority and nature of the issues and then, engaging your boss in a focused discussion on how best to address them.

David’s suggestions: don’t passively take instruction, also actively think about your problem and your work. And don’t go to boss with a question/problem unless you already have thought of a solution that you want to run by him.

1. “That’s quite a lot of work, not sure if I can do all of this by Friday; here’s how I would prioritize, does it make sense?”

2. “This is a very sensitive topic, here’s how I suggest we handle it, what do you think?”

4. Push back when your boss crosses the line

While it’s good to adapt your communications and working style with that of your boss, there may be certain OB (Out-of-Bounds) markers that cannot be breached like your family and relationship commitments, religious pursuits and most importantly, the agreed upon working parameters and end-points that have been agreed from the onset.

Sure, there may be periods whereby your work takes precedence over other priorities of your life. But when it occurs one too many time without your boss being aware that your needs are being neglected, you need to be assertive in pushing back and resetting the terms of engagement again. After all, if you don’t stand up for yourself, who will?

Question: What have you done to engage and manage your immediate superior or boss? What has worked out for you and what still persists as teething issues between both of you?