Building a symbiotic relationship with your manager
At its best, your manager can be the most significant career ally. Surprisingly, you can forge this alliance with the manager. The key is in recognizing that an employee-manager relationship is inherently symbiotic. And you can help your manager grow as much as the other way around.
Know that your manager wants you to be successful
In healthy organizations, managers are rewarded for their employee's growth more so than their personal growth. A desire to help others is a primary criterion in assessing an individual's readiness for becoming a people manager. Conversely, a passion for grooming others' careers motivates many ICs to choose a people management career. These motives set the perfect recipe for a mutually beneficial relationship, recognizing it is powerful.
Align on what success looks like
If you are new to the job or early in your career, ask your manager what immediate outcomes he expects from you. This could mean launching a priority feature/product, achieving a specific metric, or driving clarity on a particular problem. Craft a 3-6 months plan with outcomes for the product, team, and yourself and ask for feedback.
Once you determine these targets, list tactics to get there. You can granularize the tasks depending on the time horizon and the magnitude of these outcomes. For example, if your goal is to determine a product-market fit for your product area, the activities could be five customer conversations, running ten experiments, or building a POC. But if it's launching the next iteration of an existing product, it would mean defining metrics and a launch plan. As it's called at Microsoft, these core priorities form the basis for your future interaction with your manager and the criteria for your following performance review.
Make the most out of your 1:1s
Treat 1:1 as the most sacred meeting of your week. If you don't have recurring 1:1s, set it up. Then, hold yourself and your manager accountable to follow the cadence. Use this meeting for goal setting, alignment, coaching, and guidance rather than status updates. I often send a summary before the 1:1, so we are on the same page early on and use the meeting for a meaningful conversation.
The weekly sessions are when you should seek feedback and identify potential red flags, so you have enough opportunity to understand and act on them. If you hear critical feedback during your performance review, you both waited too long.
1:1 is a great time to understand your manager's priorities and how you can help her. She might be undergoing a re-org, growing pains, or need help recruiting. Knowing what's on her mind can help you determine when to ask for something and offer support instead.
Managers need feedback from their employees as much as they do need from their employees. If the trust level has yet to mature, identify and share her strengths when appropriate. When you observe something extraordinary, share it with her manager (your skip). Managers deserve to be appreciated just like any other person, as mentioned by Dave Anderson in his post Take on a secret challenge to get your manager promoted.
Keep your manager in the know. Choose the mode and level of detail that suits your mutual styles and the situation. A heads-up like "we may slip the project because we underestimated the review process" or "customer x is likely going to escalate because of an issue" will ensure she is not surprised and is better prepared to assist you from her capacity.
Seek help proactively. Your manager has a zoomed-out view of your situation, so she can offer assistance by granting more resources, taking something off your plate, or pointing you to an SME that can simplify your problem. Your success is her success - so don't hesitate when asking for help. This is a perfect example of symbiosis.
Share your dreams
Do you feel nervous sharing your career aspirations with your manager? You are not alone. The fear stems from feeling unprepared, anxious about being judged, or getting scoffed at. Once you acknowledge this, you can feel comfortable with the conversation. For example, "I may not be ready right now, but I aspire to be x or want to own y. I am willing to be patient. Help me pave the way" will put you in a better spot.
Further, add why you seek that goal. Explore your superpowers, weaknesses, and the aspects you genuinely enjoy vs. those that drain you. A shared understanding of where and why you want to achieve a specific goal will help you carve this path. This is especially useful when you need more clarity on your next milestone. Doing so will help your manager explore the routes within or outside his organization. My manager once helped an employee find a role outside his org because they both realized the current team wouldn't meet his need. He lost a great employee in the short term but built a solid long-term alliance.
Expect awkward conversations along the way. Early in my career, I once shared my desire to grow into a senior developer role with my manager. He told me that that's something I need to figure out myself. At that time, it made sense - I needed to be smart enough to find that out. In hindsight, it doesn't. If he couldn't help clarify it, who else would? Fail fast and leverage career conversations to identify incompetent managers early on.
Once you align on your next career goal, ask for feedback on his thoughts about these goals. You may underestimate yourself, or you may be shooting for the moon and have a long way to go. Either way, you walk with insights toward your goal. Objectify the gaps into activities you can start immediately.
You can read more on this topic in the post: The pursuit of a PM promotion.
Manage your well-being
Your goal is to thrive at a job, not just endure to reach the next career goal. There's a growing awareness among organizations in supporting their employees' well-being. And your manager plays a significant role in this mission. The last thing your manager wants is for you to quit because of burnout. Share what energizes you and what doesn't. Seek clarity on how to set the proper boundaries. Prioritize your following projects to strike the right stress level to drive optimal performance.
In closing, your manager can make or break your career. So choose your manager wisely. But once you have a reasonably good manager, the onus is on you to make the best out of this symbiotic relationship. Co-explore your career goals and map the route to get there. Along the way, help your manager shine by managing up. Finally, leverage your manager in thriving at your current job.