In-House Counsel, Practice Pointers

Moonlighting: Managing Your Biggest Client — Your Boss

In-house lawyers receive a good amount of guidance on ways to effectively deal with business clients. However, we typically receive less direction on how to work well with another big, and in some ways, our biggest, “client”: our managers.

Managers differ. Some are very hands-off and rely on you to update them only when you think it’s necessary. (Sometimes you may need to remind them who you are.) Or you may have a micromanager. Does he insist that you provide him with a memo, with citations, for each bathroom break you plan take? Bingo. Management skills vary. Some managers sincerely care about your well-being, and others suspect everyone wants to off them for their job. There are those who want to be your bestest friend forever and ever, while others maintain a cool distance.

As a “direct report,” you need to learn how to effectively work with your manager’s style and preferences. Banging your head against your office wall is only one of many good options. There are also several “managing up” approaches that apply when working with nearly all managers, regardless of how much of a freakshow your own boss may be….

Your first and most primary goal is to make your manager’s life easier. Ultimately, direct reports need to provide support to their managers. Be proactive about giving your boss updates, instead of leaving her to wonder why she hasn’t seen you around for the past six months. And be thorough — minimize the likelihood that your manager will have to figure out answers to questions she may have, or fill in gaps in your work herself at the last minute. Seek out answers to your questions first (or to your boss’s questions, if you can anticipate them) instead of relying on your manager from the outset to help you with them. For example (true story), don’t send your boss a 20-page string of emails with your message, “Please read this and let me know what you think.”

Another primary goal is to help your manager look good. One way to do this is to make yourself look good (this is easy for some of you who already expend plenty of time and effort on this anyway). If you perform well, your success will be attributed in part to your boss’s good management. If you mess up, your boss may ultimately be blamed for not providing the young Padawan with proper guidance.

You can also help your manager to look good by ensuring that she has important information, whether good or bad, as early as possible, so that she can figure out early how to best address situations. You don’t need to limit the information to that which relates only to your direct responsibilities. Administrative staff revolts, for example, are worthy of a heads up.

Note that contradicting your manager in public may make you look good, but it will invariably make your boss look bad. Maintain good communication with your manager and use pre-meetings and post-meetings to address any questions or conflicting information that you may both have. If you absolutely need to contradict her in front of others (for example, if people are making decisions based on what she said), try to do so in a way that saves face. “We all read the memo — didn’t you?” may be a less ideal response.

Also, understand what your boss focuses on. People have different hot button issues, whether it’s corporate policy compliance, costs and budget, or client pressures. Keep track of what your manager typically zeros in on, and be prepared to update her when she asks the next time.

Finally, it’s your responsibility as a direct report to tell your manager what you want, whether it’s assignments, responsibilities, training, etc. Even the best managers may not be as skilled as others in telepathy, so be sure to keep non-psychic lines of communication open. Provide good reasons on why you should get this or that developmental opportunity.

And finally, finally, make it easy for your manager to vouch for you. Keep track of your accomplishments and learn to promote yourself so that it’s easy for your manager to make your case to get that promotion, go on bold, new adventures, get that corner office with the disco ball, etc. Trust me, young Padawan, your manager wants you to come up with stuff that she can brag about (so that she looks good too, remember?).

Have any other tips for managing your boss effectively? Email me or comment below.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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