Manage Your Boss

The moment has come for employees everywhere to be put through the midyear microscope, as supervisors assess their employees' performances for the first six months of 2009 and gauge what they need to focus on in the future.

But this is also a useful time to remember one of Peter Drucker's most fundamental teachings: Your success depends not just on how well you do your job. It also depends, a great deal, on how well the person to whom you report does his or hers. And that means you must become adept not only at managing yourself and those who work for you but also at managing the boss.

"Few managers seem to realize how important it is to manage the boss or, worse, believe that it can be done at all," Drucker wrote. "They bellyache about the boss but do not even try to manage him (or her). Yet managing the boss is fairly simple—indeed, generally quite a bit simpler than managing subordinates."

That said, please don't take Drucker's insight as a license to suck up. He had no patience for brown-nosers. "One does not make the strengths of the boss productive by toadying to him," Drucker declared in 1967's The Effective Executive. "One does it by starting out with what is right and presenting it in a form which is accessible to the superior."

Take a Letter

Among the best forms of communication, Drucker advised in his 1954 landmark The Practice of Management, is a twice-yearly letter written to one's supervisor. The goal, Drucker explained, is for the employee to spell out not only his own goals but also what he sees as the boss's objectives. After that, the employee enumerates the "things he must do himself to attain these goals—and the things within his own unit he considers the major obstacles. He lists the things his superior and the company do that help him and the things that hamper him."

"Finally," Drucker continued, "he outlines what he proposes to do during the next year to reach his goals. If his superior accepts this statement, the 'manager's letter' becomes the charter" under which one carries out his duties—and, done right, it leaves little room for confusion or second-guessing. Said Drucker: "This device, like no other I have seen, brings out how easily the unconsidered and casual remarks of even the best 'boss' can confuse and misdirect."

The dialogue between superior and subordinate shouldn't stop there, however. Drucker also recommended that, at least once a year, every employee ask his or her boss (or bosses): "What do I do and what do my people do that helps you do your job? And what do we do that…makes life more difficult for you?"

Meanwhile, Drucker provided two other bits of counsel for managing upward. First, be mindful that nobody likes surprises—especially the boss. So keep him or her in the loop.

Second, never underestimate the person with the reserved parking space. "The boss may look illiterate; he may look stupid—and looks are not always deceptive," Drucker wrote. "But there is no risk at all in overrating a boss. The worst that can happen is for the boss to feel flattered." Yet if you underrate the boss, he may well "see through your little game and will bitterly resent it."

Candor and Trust

This doesn't mean that you should be cynical or insincere in the way you connect to those in the corner office. The key to managing people for whom you work, just as it is to managing people who work for you, is building relationships based on candor and trust—and recognizing, as part of that process, that everyone has his or her own strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies.

"Bosses are not a title on the organization chart or a 'function,'" Drucker remarked. "They are individuals and are entitled to do their work in the way they do it. And it is incumbent on the people who work with them to observe them, to find out how they work, and to adapt themselves to the way the bosses are effective."

If your boss is a reader, for example, give him reports in writing. If he's a listener, approach him that way instead.

Though Drucker began writing about managing the boss some 50 years ago, it is a subject that has particular resonance today. The more knowledge-driven that organizations become, Drucker noted, the greater the likelihood that a supervisor hasn't actually performed many of the specialized tasks for which his or her employees have been hired.

Like an Orchestra Conductor

The interplay that develops, therefore, "is far more like that between the conductor of an orchestra and the instrumentalist than it is like the traditional superior/subordinate relationship," Drucker wrote in his 1999 book Management Challenges for the 21st Century. "The superior in an organization employing knowledge workers cannot, as a rule, do the work of the supposed subordinate any more than the conductor of an orchestra can play the tuba."

In turn, those down the ladder may hold more power than they realize. "Just as an orchestra can sabotage even the ablest conductor," said Drucker, "a knowledge organization can easily sabotage even the ablest, let alone the most autocratic, superior."

Be careful, though, before you do. Figuring out how to manage—rather than damage—the boss is very likely in your self-interest. After all, as Drucker pointed out, one of the surest ways to get ahead is "to work for a boss who is going places."

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