Who is managing who?

Bosses may think they manage their PAs and secretaries. But we know the truth. Every day, and in so many ways, support staff are "managing up". Senior PA Lee Morrissey offers a personal view on this behind-the-scenes management, which ensures that the boss succeeds in their role, and that you succeed in yours...

By Lee Morrissey

Classic interview question: what's your preferred management style with staff? I say something about finding out what they want from their job, encouraging development, playing to their strengths, etc, etc.

What I don't make explicit is that I am talking about how I manage my boss. No need for the interviewers to know that kind of detail, is there?

Managing one's boss is not something touched on by my secretarial course but it is one of the most useful skills anyone can develop. Many bosses claim they want to be more efficient and better supported, but then they can't get out of their own way in order to let it happen. Managing your manager so that your contribution to their working life has an impact on their day-to-day business affairs is of genuine use to them and, ultimately, to you.

Time management: As Albert Einstein should have said, it's relative to where you are on the corporate food chain. Chronically bad time keeping is usually a sign that the boss is Queen of All She Surveys and doesn't have to care about being rude and unprofessional. Or, it can be a sign that s/he is trying to cram a quart into a pint pot.

So what can you do about it? Quite a lot, actually! You need to establish your manager's working preferences, while steering and guiding them to improve. You may have to become the forward-planner, who nudges and pushes to get things done.

Sitting down for a weekly shift through the diary is not a cure-all but it certainly should leave both of you ahead of the game for a few days. Have all the papers arrived for meetings? If not, do you chase so that your boss has some time to read and digest? Do you hand over the papers a day or so before, so that he or she can refresh their memory and be well briefed? Do you know if and how your manager likes to be reminded about reports they are expected to write? And when to remind?

When was the last time you said to your manager, "What can I take from you? Delegate, please". You may get a rag-bag of parking fines, policy papers and luncheon invites, but it is helping to clear the decks. Is your manager agreeable to you taking the phone for an hour while they have uninterrupted reading/thinking time? Yes, I said "thinking" and it's an article about the workplace. Radical.

Of course, if your boss is struggling because they don't enjoy what they are doing, and don't want to clear the decks - it's easier not to have to face the Report to the Chairman when you have a wall of nonsense in front of you - you cannot force them to comply. You can only set up the framework for good time management and invite them to participate.

Networks Are Us: One of the best ways to help the boss steer a clear course through choppy office politics, is to be aware of what is going on in your business and in your field of work. Talk to PA collegues, talk to managers and directors, read the trade journals, read all of your manager's correspondence and emails, look at your intranet. It's amazing how much more sense you can make of work projects once you understand the context in which you operate.

This is invaluable to your manager, too. If you can give the heads up about new projects or research extra information on developments, or background on new personnel (public domain stuff - we're not talking about bugging offices here), they will be better briefed about their working environment. They will also register your interest in what they are doing, and that you take your role seriously. This will all feed in to your working relationship and help strengthen it.

What does your manager want? Managers are detail people. That's what they need to know in order to manage. I need to reassure my boss that the meeting room has been booked, the mid-morning refreshments are ordered, as is the lunch, and that IT know to rig up something for the overheads.

I wouldn't dream of asking that level of detail from anyone organising for me but then the boss and I are very different characters. So I just tell my manager, unbidden, that all of this is in place. The boss is happy. I am left alone. Your value to them will rise exponentially. Generally speaking: give your manager what he or she wants.

What do you want? And how about when you need to manage your boss to give you what you want? If it's something that's going to enhance your already stupendous skills, you'll have a strong argument to back up your case with your manager. Once you highlight examples of how you have saved them time, saved them stress, and ensured they are properly briefed for meetings, they should be very amenable to having more of the same from you. If that means an extra tranche of training or some new technology, then it will be worth every penny to them and to your employer. So focus always on the benefits to day-to-day running, the team, the manager, the department's reputation, and - of course - the bottom line.

Managing upwards is little different from managing downwards. If you establish what your manager's strengths are and learn from those, you can bring your own skills to the mix to plug the gaps. Between you, you can form a very formidable team. And aren't strong teams a sign of good management?

Lee Morrisey is a PA, writer, life coach, football fan and Gemini. When she is not being any of these she can usually be found lying on the sofa, eating chocolate and ignoring the ironing.

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