Building Strong Line Manager Relationships

As an executive coach, I’m often asked for help with building a stronger line manager relationship. I was once told that people leave their jobs for only one of two reasons – their partner or their boss. As the line manager relationship is one of the most critical relationships in your career, it’s worth dedicating time to thinking how you can strengthen yours.  Have you got a line manager that embraces your potential? Or does your line manager keep you stuck and keep you held back?

Having worked with a wide range of leaders in a variety of sectors, I’ve identified some common patterns as to how and why the relationship can get stuck. Later in the article, I’ll share my thoughts on what you can do about it too.

Embracing Potential

But first, let’s start by understanding the characteristics of a line manager who embraces potential. Here’s a selection of some excellent best practises:

  1. The line manager gives regular, specific, supportive feedback. He or she focuses equally on what is being done well and identifies areas for growth. In performance reviews there is an equal balance to the results / tasks and to personal development. 
  • Feedback is encouraged in return. I once knew of an executive in a UK retailer who consistently asked and acted on the following question:
    • “How can I be the best boss you have ever had?” This is a courageous and highly empowering question to ask. The lovely thing was he really did act on the feedback. Don’t ask if you don’t want to hear the answer!
    • Don’t be afraid to share your feedback on your boss – remember it should be actionable.
  • The line manager offers up opportunities for growth and progression, e.g. suggesting you run a larger team, a bigger p&l account; presentation opportunities; projects; international assignments; etc.
  • Provides a coach and other external development, e.g. attending a leadership development programme, finding a mentor, etc.
  • Consistently sharing examples of your work and achievements with peers and other direct reports in a positive and supportive manner. This is a very powerful way of increasing your visibility in the organisation.

If you have a line manager like this, hang onto them! And, if it is time to move on, ask if they would continue to be a mentor for you.

Okay, so what happens when a line manager ‘doesn’t have your back’? A typical response is to work harder, to take on more work, to try and prove ourselves further. There are many reasons why he / she decides not to embrace your potential.

Why Line Managers May Hold Us Back

  1. A lack of technical competence (in their eyes). “You are good, but not that good.”
  2. They feel, or they have been told, that you have little impact or presence with influential others, Board members or key stakeholders in the business.
  3. He / she might not know about your ambition and desires to take on a bigger role. (You may have expected them to read your mind).
  4. You doubt yourself and it shows.
  5. Maybe he / she doesn’t think you could take the pace – they may rightly or wrongly believe that you have a busy home-life or you might not be able to cope with the hours.
  6. Perhaps the most powerful reason of all. Your boss does not want to let you go. Why?
    1. You may do all the crap that he / she doesn’t want to do
    1. You do a great job and always deliver on the numbers
    1. You haven’t got a clear successor in place and this is a HUGE one that will stop a line manager promoting you.

If this sounds like you, what can you do?

Here’s my top four strategies:

  1. Firstly, get to know your line manager differently. What I mean by that is to find out what’s really important to him or her. What are their ambitions and goals? What does success look like to them? How do they like to make decisions? What are their blind spots? How do they take risks? (This is a key one to understand why you maybe held back).
  2. Secondly, build a strong powerbase. You’ve probably heard this one before. Your boss is not god. You must have a strong network across the business – other people who can validate your perception of your line manager; advise you on different approaches; support you in your progression.
  3. Thirdly, tell your line manager what you want and over what timescales. Don’t expect them to have a crystal ball.
  4. Finally, actively grow a successor in your team. Who is going to take over your role? What visibility are you giving him or her? How are you helping them to grow professionally and personally? And not only that, but who are you developing to be even better than you? I heard Keith Antoine talk about this very thing at our recent International Women’s Conference. He likened it to Olympic athletes who are always seeking to improve on their previous performance. 

And Finally:

Building a strong line manager relationship does take time and take effort. As with all relationships it needs to flourish based upon common goals and understanding.  You have to be brave, be patient and have the mind-set to push aside your own fears and be clear on exactly what it is that you do want. Trust me on this. You have so much more potential than you will ever know. Don’t let anyone hold you back. Life is too short.

Interested in finding out more? Why not visit to see how we may be able to work together.


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