Your relationship with your boss is critical to your success. But there’s another person who often has just as much influence over your career: your boss’s boss. What should your relationship with that person look like? How often should you interact with her? What should you say? And how do you foster a connection without undermining your direct manager?
What the Experts Say
“The more you are known and respected by people above you, the better off you are from a career standpoint,” says Priscilla Claman, the president of Career Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm and a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job. And your boss’s boss — a person who “knows the scoop, knows the vision of the organization, and is helping set the strategy” — is a good person to get to know, she adds. The stronger your relationship, the more insight you’ll have into your company’s future. Moreover, having your boss’s boss on your side gives you professional leverage, says Karen Dillon, coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life? “Having that person as your champion increases the likelihood that your promotion will be approved, your raise will go through, and you’ll be considered for that next great assignment.” And yet, connecting with your manager’s manager is “a delicate dance,” since your boss is still the “middleman,” she says. Here are some strategies for getting the dance right.
One of the best ways to show your value to higher-ups is to “be present and engaged” in your organization, says Dillon. “If your boss’s boss is giving a lunch talk or a town hall meeting, go to it. Sit in front. Ask questions. Continue the conversation in the hallway.” Show that you care about your company and that you are serious about your career. After all, “your boss’s boss should want to see you succeed. You need to demonstrate your eagerness to do so.” Claman recommends seizing opportunities to touch base and asking information-based questions, such as: ”Do you have a contact that could help me with a particular assignment?” or “Can you recommend a book that could improve my understanding of [a relevant business issue]?” Ask your manager for suggestions first, and then ask if her boss might have more ideas. “People are generally willing to help with these kinds of questions because it allows them to show how knowledgeable they are,” Claman says.
Find a common bond
It’s important to “remember your boss’s boss is a human being,” says Dillon. “Find a way to connect on a human level.” Perhaps she’s a movie fan, an avid skier, or maybe she really enjoys cooking. “It might take digging,” but it’s worthwhile to forge a bond that’s not solely related to work. Also bear in mind the corporate truism that it’s lonely at the top, so your efforts will probably be welcome, adds Dillon. At the very least, “don’t avoid this person.” But also consider “asking her to lunch” or just “engaging her for 30 seconds at the water cooler about her weekend plans, the Oscars, or last night’s baseball game.” At the same time, don’t beat yourself up if you find it difficult to build a friendly rapport. “There are some people in this world that are you are not going to win over,” says Claman. In these cases, you’ll have to court your boss’s boss the way you would a “difficult customer.”
Raise your profile
Just doing good work is “not enough to get noticed” by people higher up the command chain, Dillon says. So “make sure you’re not too heads-down or never claim credit” for your ideas. You don’t want to suck up or brag, but a little horn-tooting may be necessary. Pass on compliments you receive from customers and colleagues to your manager, who will probably send them to his boss, since your success reflects positively on him. Claman suggests you also “take an entrepreneurial approach to your job and the tasks you’re asked to complete.” Pitching solutions that solve your organization’s problems is standard practice for managing up. So offer ideas for new initiatives or “how to do things better and faster.” Some of these suggestions will require approval, and “moving ideas up the hierarchy creates an opportunity to talk to your manager and his manager,” Claman says. Another way to raise your profile with your boss’s boss is by volunteering for a cross-functional committee — preferably one run by him. This both deepens your ties to him and increases your visibility. It’s also worth asking, with your manager’s blessing, if you can attend certain high-level meetings. You’ll increase your exposure to other parts of the company, expand your network, and “develop a personal reputation that’s not tied to your boss.”
Remember who’s #1
Having a good relationship with your boss’s boss is a wonderful thing — but don’t prioritize it over the one you should be developing with your manager, says Dillon. Keep her in the loop and include her on all communication you have with higher-ups. The adage “Gossip as if people are listening” applies here, she adds. Assume that your boss will hear about any interactions you have with her manager. “Don’t do anything to surprise her, and don’t make it look like you can’t wait for her to get out of the way,” Dillon says. “The worst thing that can happen is that you make your boss feel insecure.” Claman agrees: “Don’t go around your boss. Show your loyalty. No matter what organizations may say about having an open-door policy, there are norms” that you must respect.
Principles to Remember
Seize opportunities to touch base with your boss’s boss by asking information-based questions
Improve your visibility by suggesting new ideas or volunteering for a cross-functional team
Pass on compliments you receive from customers and colleagues to your manager. Your boss will likely send the kudos up the chain of command.
Forget that your boss’s boss is a human being. Try to find something in common.
Be blasé. Show your value to your boss’s boss by being present and engaged in your organization.
Neglect your primary work relationship. Your supervisor still has the greatest influence over your career.
Case Study #1: Tend to your primary work relationship by finding solutions to your boss’s problems
When Faye Patzner first joined CUNA Mutual Group, which provides financial products and services to credit unions, she worked in the company’s legal department. She quickly picked up on the fact that her direct manager, “Sue,” had a strained relationship with her own boss, “Jim.” Making matters worse, Jim sometimes came directly to Faye whenever he had questions or concerns.
To improve the working relationships all around, Faye focused first on building trust with her manager. Whenever Faye had a conversation with Jim, she let Sue know. “And in joint meetings, I would say, ‘Sue and I have talked and here’s what we believe.’ If I knew Sue saw something differently than I did, I would lay out all the facts and then say something like, ‘You can look at this issue a lot of different ways. Here is where I come out.’”
She also put herself “in Jim’s shoes” by trying to understand “the business problems he had.”
When Sue eventually moved on, Jim hired a replacement from the outside, “Sean,” with whom he had worked in a previous company. Faye soon realized she had a new challenge: access. Sean was territorial and wouldn’t let her attend high-level meetings. Realizing he “needed to demonstrate that he could navigate the organization,” she opted to help him. “I had conversations with him about what our partners and clients were concerned about and helped him feel comfortable with the business issues. After Sean felt he could trust me, he started asking me to attend the meetings.”
Faye continued to voice her opinions to Jim and to show him “enthusiasm,” “high energy,” and engagement in an effort to deepen their connection, but she notes that she was “always judicious” and “made sure to do it in a nonthreatening way.” Ultimately, she developed very strong relationships with both Jim and Sean. Today she is the chief administrative officer of CUNA.
Case Study #2: Make your boss look good by being an exemplary employee — and don’t force a relationship with your boss’s boss
Paul Raden knows all too well the challenges of developing a positive, healthy relationship with a boss’s boss. Earlier in his career, he was the director of marketing at a “very hierarchical” organization with a “prickly” CEO, to whom his manager reported. “Most people were not comfortable talking to him,” Paul recalls. “He used to hold one-on-one meetings with team members on Saturday mornings because he wanted to make sure people were still working on the weekends. It was a frenzied culture, and it created a lot of anxiety.”
It didn’t take long for Paul to understand what he needed to do to make sure his career didn’t suffer. Many leaders in the organization were paranoid whenever their direct reports interacted with the CEO. Fortunately, Paul had a very good relationship with his boss, who had recruited him because they’d previously worked together. “As soon as I realized the workplace dynamics, I did whatever I could to make my boss look like a star. I knew that if I could make him look great, he would reward me,” he says. “I hit or exceeded my metrics and deliverables every quarter [because] I knew that my boss was reporting those numbers to his boss.”
Although Paul didn’t necessarily aspire to develop a close relationship with the CEO, he would engage him in small talk. “We bonded in a weird way,” says Paul. “We were usually the first ones to arrive in the morning and the last ones to leave at night. We didn’t have a lot in common besides the fact that we are both workaholics, but we did happen to live in the same neighborhood, so we would often talk about local restaurants.”
Paul’s strategy worked: He received large annual bonuses from his boss, and eventually the CEO took notice of his stellar performance and offered him a promotion. But Paul declined because he wanted to start his own company. He’s now the chief experience officer at Relay Network, a technology group that connects businesses and people through a private messaging application.