MANAGING UP PART IV: MENTORING THE BOSS

I met my sergeant soon after I arrived in Germany. His name was Thomas Brett. I was a green, newly minted, Second Lieutenant placed in charge of eight Medical Dispensaries surrounding Stuttgart. I knew just enough about being an Officer with such responsibility to easily get myself into trouble.

It quickly became obvious to me that Sergeant Brett’s responsibility was to take me under his wing, teach me the ropes, and educate my instincts before I launched any major exercise of my authority. The tact and diplomacy with which Tom accomplished this mentoring feat never left me thinking that he, not I, was the boss. In time, I came to appreciate not only how much I was learning from my subordinate but how the Army had institutionalized this mentoring role for all its officer initiates.

True, in business and the public sector, the junior manager generally will not have as much experience as her or his superior. That does not mean, however, that one’s boss — especially one new to the organization or your part of it — isn’t lacking in some area of experience or insight that you possess.

I have always believed — and seen work in action — that helping your boss to succeed helps you as well in the long run. It takes the sort of tact and diplomacy that Tom Brett displayed so as not to appear disrespectful, condescending, or to be acting beyond your pay grade. Moreover, some bosses will refuse to listen or heed your counsel no matter how diplomatically it is presented. Nevertheless, while always a judgment call on your part, thinking about how you might mentor your boss effectively so as to further his or her and your objectives simultaneously, is a core part of what the best managers know and do.

There is a phrase widely used in management “hit the ground running” that has always made me laugh. I am highly pictorial in my thinking so hearing this phrase, I picture a manager parachuting into her of his new job with their legs pumping full tilt. The minute they hit the ground, off they go. Unfortunately there are 360 possible degrees in which they can run, a good 300 of them representing the wrong direction.

This is precisely the sort of boss who will need wise and cautiously given advice to prevent early mistakes effecting you and many others, that will require reversing later. Equally in need of some diplomatic intervention, are those new bosses who are determined to demonstrate that they know it all before they know it all. Mentoring these superiors is far from easy but managing up in general is a challenge even with the most cooperative boss.

Managing would be so easy if it were not for the PEOPLE. It is figuring out what motivates people, drives them, influences their actions, enables them to both over and under-achieve, and at times makes them seem like they are determined to drive you crazy, that is the very essence of a manager’s job. As true as this is for your subordinates, it applies to your superiors as well.

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