The Secret To Managing Your Boss

Ed Burghard

“Some people change jobs, spouses and friends, but never think of changing themselves.”

There is no other relationship at work more important than the one you have with your boss.  John Gabarro and John Kotter authored a paper entitled “Managing Your Boss”.  This paper has become a cornerstone document on the subject of creating a mutually beneficial boss-subordinate relationship that enhances the productivity and career advancement of both parties.  The basic premise is “If you forge ties with your boss based on mutual respect and understanding, both of you will be more effective”.

The paper even provided a handy checklist.

Gabarro & Kotter Checklist For Managing Your Boss

Make sure you understand your boss and his or her context, including:

  • Goals and Objectives
  • Pressures
  • Strengths, weaknesses, blind spots
  • Preferred work style

Assess yourself and your needs. Including:

  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Personal style
  • Predisposition toward dependence on authority figures

Develop and maintain a relationship that:

  • Fits both your needs and styles
  • Is characterized by mutual expectations
  • Keeps your boss informed
  • Is based on dependability and honesty
  • Selectively uses your boss’s time and resources

Certainly great advice, but how do you actually execute against it?

10 Secrets To Managing Your Boss

Secret #1 – Don’t assume your boss knows as much about your work as you do.

It is important when you talk to your boss about a project that you provide context.  Remind your boss about past conversations and where you left off the last time you spoke about the project.  Summarize any actions considered and why you elected to go in the current direction.  Tell your boss what you expect from him/her.  On eof my favorite starting phrases for any meeting with my boss was always – “The purpose of today’s meeting is …”  Then I would inform my boss if I was simply providing an update and wanted feedback, was seeking help, needed a decision, etc..  After you meet, summarize any agreements.  I used to do so in a thank-you email.  It provides a handy paper trail of your discussions that both of you can refer back to.

Secret #2 – Be respectful of your boss’s time.

Make sure you are prepared for meetings.  Have the relevant facts summarized for a quick orientation to the challenge at hand.  Use a talk sheet to structure both your thinking and the discussion.  Keep the conversation simple and focused on a single issue.  If you have multiple issues on a project, book several meetings so each time you concentrate on addressing only the most important one at hand.  By the way, the one defined as most important is the one that is getting in the way of completing the project.  It may not be the one that is causing you the greatest frustration.

Secret #3 – Have a point-of-view.

Never ask your boss for his/her opinion without having thought enough about the problem to have your own point-of-view.  Your boss does not have all the answers, and you were assigned the project to lead it.  It is fair to ask your boss for a perspective on the direction you want to take.  Your boss will have both experience and knowledge you do not (either from personal experience or having sat in on senior manager leadership meetings where information was shared).  If you ask your boss for an opinion, be prepared to execute what he/she directs.  It is the penalty you pay for being unprepared.  As harsh as it may sound, when I managed people I would set the expectation that they should always make a recommendation on what action to take to solve a problem.  If they failed to make a recommendation and looked to me for the answer, I would collect their pay for doing their job.  Looking back, the people who worked for me always came in with a recommended course of action to solve problems.  We would work together to modify their recommendation based on my experience and/or knowledge.  But, they never came in unprepared or empty handed.

Secret #4 – Be data based.

It is important you know the facts of a situation.  Bring those facts to the table when talking with your boss.  It will help avoid making decisions based on opinions.  Invest enough time to gather the relevant facts required to address a problem.  Typically this includes understanding the financial, project completion timing and organizational impacts.  It will also include understanding the internal politics.  This is all homework you should do before meeting with your boss.

Secret #5 – Understand the limits of your decision-making rights.

Delegation is a tricky business.  It is often hard to define every circumstance that you should be seeking your boss’s approval for before proceeding.  Consequently, some common sense is in order.  But, it is important to discuss if there are milestone decision points or financial limits that need to be considered when managing a project.  Some of these constraints are dictated by your organization (e.g. financial approval levels).  Some are impacted by internal politics.  To the extent you can, work with your boss to be aware of the more obvious ones.  As energizing as it is to say “Ask for forgiveness rather than permission”, the truth is that over stepping your decision-making rights is often a major trustbuster in the boss-subordinate relationship.  Make your boss your ally, not an adversary, in the decision-making process.

Secret #6 – Keep your promises.

If you commit to deliver something, deliver it.  If you over committed, then address it in advance and renegotiate the promise.  Don’t let deadlines simply slip by with the expectation that the oversight will be overlooked.  You never want to put your boss in a position of being embarrassed in a senior management meeting because you did not deliver on time (or within budget).

Secret #7 – The paperwork matters.

Don’t be sloppy or delinquent in your documentation.  Get your company required paperwork completed on time and with an eye to detail.  Failure to do so makes you seem incompetent.  Meeting summaries, expense reports, order forms, etc., these are all things that take time and seem unimportant when a project completion deadline is fast approaching.  But, failure to complete the paperwork can often result in your boss having to defend your performance to other departments within your organization.  Your boss has to comply with documentation requirements, and the expectation is that you will too.  Don’t let this become a sore spot in your boss-subordinate relationship.


The secrets really come down to caring about creating a relationship of mutual trust with your boss.  It is a matter of striving to always have your boss’s back with an expectation your boss will have your back in turn.  If you are interested, here is a blog post I authored giving advice to bosses on what they should be doing – BLOG POST


What have been some of your secrets to creating a great boss-subordinate relationship?  Do you have any stories of poor relationships and why they developed?  If you manage people, what do you wish they would do to help you help them be even better at their job?  Do you think having a trusting relationship with your boss is important for success?

Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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