From the top: How should you manage your boss?

From the top: How should you manage your boss? - Boss a bit of a problem? It happens. Too much hands-on or not enough.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Boss a bit of a problem? It happens. Too much hands-on or not enough.

Vague about what is wanted, or a stickler about doing things the old way.

But the boss is the boss, and going head-to-head can be hazardous to your career. And besides, there's no need ...

If you are supposed to be a successful manager, then a difficult boss is just another problem to manage. You won't be the first, and just to prove it we have asked six leading business figures to pass along their advice on how they have managed the people above them as they moved up the career ladder. And, of course, how they like to be managed from below.

Look for some clues to your own situation. You can take it from the top - and learn.

ROB HERSOV

CHIEF EXECUTIVE, SPORTAL

There's so much focus these days on management down that people seem to have forgotten the huge importance of managing up. It's vital to learn quickly how to manage your boss or you will not survive. My biggest tip would be to learn exactly how your boss operates and to fit into his or her time patterns and routines. For example, if you know they do the ride home between 7pm and 8pm in a car, get in the back seat for that talk you need to have with them. Then deliver your idea or request in a time-effective manner with the question right up front. Be prepared to disagree and argue for something you believe in. Don't be cowed by authority.

Rupert Murdoch, for whom I used to work, was really good at responding to this. He'd be juggling hundreds of balls, but if you did your preparation right you'd get a considered response from him within 10 minutes.

Another vital point is to maintain a sense of humour when dealing with your boss. Don't take yourself too seriously - make them enjoy being with you, and be your own person. Rupert liked it if you cracked a few jokes - he'd roar with laughter at a good one.

As a News Corp executive in the '80s, Rob Hersov reported directly to Rupert Murdoch. He also worked for many of the big names in European pay TV before founding Sportal in 1998.

CAROL FISHER

CHIEF EXECUTIVE, COI COMMUNICATIONS

Always make sure your priorities are the same. It can make the difference between a good job and a bad one - if you don't recognise your boss's priorities, you've had it. Understand that a boss will want to take much, if not all, of the glory; part of your job is to make them look good.

After all, they take ultimate responsibility so they deserve at least some of the credit.

It's very important to give your boss early warning when things are going wrong. There's nothing worse than being told about an imminent disaster five minutes before an important meeting when something could have been done about it if you'd brought the matter up a week ago.

Find out about your boss's outside interests, as this can help to improve the relationship. You may find you have an interest in common But never pretend to be interested in something you're not - you're bound to get found out. Still, there's no reason not to ask how the golf went at the weekend. It shows an interest in them as a human being, as opposed to just a boss.

Finally, recognise that managers have moods and there are times when a request from you may be unwelcome. Get to know your boss's PA, who can advise you when's a good time. Having a boss's PA on your side can be enormously helpful.

Before joining the Government agency COI Communications, Carol Fisher was well known for her marketing skills within the brewing industry. As well as being the first marketing director at Holsten, she was involved in the launches of Webster's Yorkshire Bitter and Budweiser.

RUPERT HOWELL

CHAIRMAN, HHCL AND PARTNERS

JOINT CEO, CHIME COMMUNICATIONS

'Boss' sounds such an old-fashioned word in the modern world of devolved management. Nonetheless, every human organisation contains some form of hierarchy, and it pays to manage your senior colleagues, even if you would never call them 'boss'.

My experience of managing and being managed in this relationship suggests that, as with all issues, there are rational and emotional elements involved.

On a rational level, no boss likes nasty surprises. Thinking you can solve a serious problem before he or she finds out is a doomed strategy.

Much better to inform the boss about the problem early on, together with your suggested solution; and of course you can then also take advantage of any advice they may proffer.

On an emotional level, the boss can get lonely and very rarely receives any praise. Without being sycophantic, you should praise them occasionally, if only to earn the right to criticise (constructively, of course) in the event that you disagree with them.

'Consideration' is the key word. Remember, they were once where you are now and you should treat them as you hope to be treated.

Rupert Howell initially made his name as one of the fastest-talking ad men of the '80s. He was one of the founders in 1987 of HHCL, which joined with Chime 10 years later.

CHARLES SAUMAREZ SMITH

DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

Of course, there are all the formal things in managing your boss - ensuring that you have regular meetings, that you come prepared, that you use the meetings you have to good effect and that you keep him/her properly informed about what you are doing. But you also need to distinguish effectively between things that are important and the minutiae. Do what you say you'll do and, remember, there are other things that are tacit. Bosses are human too - occasionally. They want to be able to delegate, but at the same time need to be confident that everyone is working as well as they can.

So, it's about psychology as well as performance.

Before joining the National Portrait Gallery in 1994, Charles Saumarez Smith was head of research at the Victoria & Albert Museum. He is also the author of several books on museums and design.

CAROLYN McCALL

MANAGING DIRECTOR, GUARDIAN NEWSPAPERS

Communication is the key to successfully managing your boss so that there are no surprises either way. A mutual understanding of both your areas of responsibility and decision-making will help establish a framework for a good working relationship. Knowing how your boss works and their pressures and timescales is important so that you know how best to support them and ultimately work together as an effective team. Be strong enough to say what you think and don't always feel you have to agree - being constructive with an alternative point of view is extremely valuable.

Never have a hidden agenda; instead, be open and honest, as this will build up a position of trust on which the best working relationships thrive.

A sense of humour can be extremely powerful, often when you least expect it, so don't forget that you have one and that it is there to be used.

Carolyn McCall joined the Guardian as advertisement manager in 1986 and has worked her way up the ranks, stepping into Caroline Marland's shoes as MD of the newspaper group in August this year. She is also non-executive director of New Look Group.

SIR JOHN HARVEY-JONES

CORPORATE CONSULTANT

While management from below may seem to be a contradiction in terms, in reality every boss needs continual constructive help and support. Even though hierarchies have largely been abolished, the fact is that the relevant decisions and actions are always best taken by those closest to the problems.

The boss can be a help or a hindrance in these matters, and there is no doubt that the enlightened boss recognises his own limitations and spends time discussing issues with his subordinates. However, not all bosses act in this way. Even though all bosses have the same need, it is the role of the subordinate to try and affect the environment in which he operates to ensure that the appropriate decisions and actions are taken.

To do this requires tact, skill and a lack of concern about claiming credit for the ultimate actions. I hope that the study of this arcane art is enhanced, and it attracts the intellectual thinking and effort that are needed.

Chairman of ICI in the '80s, Sir John found a wide public as the face of BBC TV's Troubleshooter. He is now a management guru and author of Making it Happen - Reflections on Leadership.

GERRY FORD

CHAIRMAN, CAFFE NERO

With a sense of humour and of understanding. If you can laugh with, and even laugh at, your boss, life will never be too bad, too dull or too overwhelming. It's important to keep a sense of sanity, and laughing with someone is a way of doing that. But you also need to understand your boss, his objectives, his way of working, his weaknesses, his strengths and the pressures he's under. If you can understand what's needed to do a good job and the sort of individual you are dealing with, you will gain more satisfaction from your work. Why? Because you can focus on what's truly important, and accomplish this in a way that suits your own personality.

Often it's hard to understand why your boss might be reacting in a certain way to your work. The more you understand his weaknesses, quirks and pressures, the easier it is to appreciate why reactions might arise and thus avoid problems. Lastly, If you have open lines of communication almost anything can be accomplished. You can clarify what you don't understand, whether your work is effective and if you are receiving feedback, and you can discuss personal issues. When the gap between you is reduced, so are the difficulties.

Investor-turned-entrepreneur Gerry Ford is the founder of Caffe Nero.

From a standing start three years ago, his chic Italian-style coffee bar chain is now the fourth-largest of its kind in the country.

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