Leading Wisely: The Trick to Managing Employees? Let Them Manage You


Not too many years ago I was editing a well-known HR and talent management publication and was engaged in one of my frequent discussions with the publisher over something.

I don't remember the topic, but at some point I said something that seemed to startle the publisher. His face turned a little red and he yelled at me something I had never heard a boss ever say before -- "Stop trying to manage me!"

This surprised me because I always thought that working to manage your boss was thought to be a good thing, but in the eyes of this guy -- who was a pretty controlling person who really did need to be managed most of the time -- it somehow was not.

Why managing up makes so much sense

So, imagine my surprise when reading this recent New York Times Corner Office column with Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, the founder and chairman of Joyus, a video shopping site, and a founder oftheBoardlist.com, which aims to put more women on boards. What jumped out at me was her management philosophy, because it makes the case that managing your boss is not only good, but pretty much expected.

Here's what she said when asked the question, "Do you have any early leadership lessons?"

I have this philosophy now, which I tell my team all the time, of, “Either you manage me or I manage you. Which would you prefer?

I like to give people a lot of rope. I like to see what they can do, but I also have an amazing capacity for detail. I know what they said they were going to do, and if they’re not doing it, what’s happening? Then I’m starting to pull the rope back.

And if I’m starting to manage your time, you’re not at your best, and I’m not at my best. Because when I’m managing your time with the opinions I have, I’m going to start telling you what to do, right? I’d rather bring my vision collaboratively with somebody else’s vision. But if you show up with no vision, you’re going to walk out with my vision, which I don’t think is a very empowering place to be.


The way boss-employee relations ought to be

This is a great way to view the relationship with a manager, because it clearly articulates the notion that you want to impart on your staff -- that all of you are at your best when you are bringing your vision and approach to your boss and working with them on what you should be doing.

Although my short-sighted former boss didn't understand this, managing up is a good thing, and Sukhinder Singh Cassidy makes a great point when she frames it as "do you want to manage me, or me to manage you?" It's clear that her employees are empowered to work with her and help her see where things should be going. And out of that collaboration, good things happen.

This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to leadership. Good leaders help point their people to situations like this, and they do it well. It is a highly collaborative and fulfilling boss-employee relationship.

Plus, if you have a lot of Millennials on your team, this is how they generally prefer to work, and you'll play to that if you can embrace this leadership philosophy.

Looking for capable people with some humility

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy also has some great insights on hiring, and here's what she told The New York Times when she was asked "How do you hire?"

I love really smart people, but I love really smart people who are focused on the good of the company before themselves. That gets my respect like nothing else. It’s a unique combination to find somebody who is so capable and smart, but has some level of humility about their place in the entire ecosystem. I’ve dealt with a lot of people who are really smart, but it’s all about them. And that’s a very frustrating place for me.

I also always ask people what drains their energy, and what gives them energy. That tells me a lot about what people like to do and what they’re good at.

My take: Humility isn't a quality that always jumps out in the hiring process, because hiring managers are always looking for people with a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and confidence, and these aren't qualities that humble people usually latch on to.

But, people with humility can also spread that quality through the entire workforce. When they do, everyone on your staff will be better for it. My pleasant surprise is that there is a business leader talking about it in The New York Times. It should be something to have readers and business leaders sit up and pay attention.

Editor’s Note: The Talent Insider blog is fueled by Checkster, and Checkster has great tools — like the Reference Checkup, the Interview Checkup, and the 360 Checkup — that can help you make better talent decisions as you grow a diverse and skilled team.