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Managing Up

Here's the definitive guide to winning over your bosses. By Selena Chavis | Summer 2016

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You may knock it out of the park as an accountant, but do you have what it takes to score on the executive team?

Thinking all it takes is getting the job done is a rookie mistake. Relationship building is key, says Jackie Sloane, MCC, a Chicago-based executive coach. “Often, people think if they do their jobs well, word will spread, and everyone will know. People don’t realize the importance of relationships and visibility, the importance of evangelizing what you’re doing in a diplomatic way.”

It comes down to thinking about the system rather than a job description, and understanding what really matters to your team’s leaders. In essence, it’s about managing up, and it’s an “enormous part of anyone’s job,” Sloane emphasizes.

The problem is that so many overlook this simple fact in their hurry to race up the corporate ladder. “Young people in particular get frustrated that it’s not moving faster, that their job isn’t as glamorous as they want it to be,” says Bernie Layton, managing director of Stanton Chase’s Chicago operation. “Professional development doesn’t happen overnight. Be patient and learn how to become valuable.”

With that in mind, here’s how to get a jump on making your way to MVP.

1. Be crisp. Be clear

Time is money. When engaging C-Suite executives, “Don’t languish or linger,” Layton says. “Make sure you’re prepared for the discussion. Ask yourself, ‘Where do I expect this conversation to go?’ Then have an appropriate response and recommendation ready.”

2. Bring value

Moving up in the roster requires a clear value proposition. “It’s our experience that the board of directors and CEO admire and respect those who offer critical thinking and advisory skills to a company, as opposed to just functionally solving the problems of day-to-day activities,” Layton explains, adding that the most effective professionals he sees driving a board room are those who are “nimble and able to pivot around the direction of the conversation.

“‘Here are the challenges; here are the risks; and here are the numbers associated with both.’ It’s value around critical thinking; it’s value around being timely; it’s value around knowing the numbers,” he adds.

3. Respect ranks

“If you’re ticking off your boss because you’re trying to have lunch with senior executives, it’s not going to work out really well for you,” Sloane warns. In fact, you’re falling into a dangerous trap. “Your relationship with your boss is going to have a big impact on anything you do and your long-term success,” she explains. “A good boss has enormous impact on your career. So, you need to know what really matters to them and what really matters to your boss’ boss.”

4. Play fair

Not only should professionals be careful not to leap frog their supervisors in an effort to reach the top, but they should also make a concerted effort to make that supervisor look good. “You always want to make sure your boss is winning even as you’re cultivating these relationships with higher-level leaders,” Sloane explains. “If you have an idea or information that could be useful, for example, most people you’re reporting to would want to be aware of it.”

5. Speak up

Being right is a valuable commodity, but Layton suggests that, right or wrong, just having a strong point of view can turn heads with senior executives. The important value-add is being able to back up what you say. “Take a risk; have a point of view and support it with important information,” he says.

6. Think globally

It’s easy to get caught up in your work, but failing to understand the big picture in terms of where the organization is heading is all wrong, Sloane cautions. For instance, if your firm is looking to expand in Asia and you find helpful information for that initiative, here’s your golden opportunity to move the information up the food chain.

It’s also important to consider how you conduct yourself outside of work. Layton notes that social media, while an effective platform for a number of professional endeavors, is also full of trip wires. “If you don’t think risk management in terms of social activities, it can have a negative impact,” he cautions.

7. Communicate often and well

While an introverted, analytical personality may prove advantageous when it comes to successfully navigating the technical role of accounting and finance, it may not carry you to the top spot. “There’s a bit of a glass ceiling that occurs when the nature of a person is too analytical, not adaptive with communication approaches and not collegial enough,” Layton observes. “The more technical your role, the more you need to step out of your comfort zone and have a personality that’s endearing to the C-suite and board.”
“There’s so much knowledge and expertise in the accounting field. But really, in any industry, it’s the soft skills—communication skills and that executive presence—that, ironically, are going to trump your expertise,” Sloane explains. “Your ability to influence and connect is what becomes critical.”

8. Sell yourself

Being an executive is about having the ability to influence people without really trying that hard to do it. “There’s this grace about you, this ability to put people at ease, and there’s this intelligence in the questions you ask. You’re not saying a whole bunch of stuff just to be heard,” Sloane explains. “All of that becomes much more important in leadership roles.

Your role becomes more about getting people on the same page and creating unity.”
In a sense, you’re selling yourself, and you’re selling your agenda. While many accounting professionals tend to shy away from “selling” as a concept, Sloane asserts that anyone who wants to successfully manage up will need to do their fair share of it. “Rather than getting people to do something they don’t want to do,” she says, “think about it as helping other people see what you see.”