Unwritten Rules of Management: Managing Up

A while back, I worked for a leader whose management style I didn’t understand or appreciate until years later. I perceived his tactics as borderline micromanagement and I didn’t like the way he publicly challenged the team.

At the time, my direct manager gave me some tips for how to best manage the situation, especially given my future success at the company would depend on his blessing. In reflecting back on that time, I realize my manager had given me the gift of learning how to “manage up.”

For the uninitiated, “managing up” is essentially how you make sure your leaders feel confident you are on the right path. You want them to know if it’s in your hands, it’s getting done — and done well.

In my experience, shaping this perception requires some elbow grease but also some mindset shifts:

(1) Keep them informed in a concise, written way
This seems pretty obvious but is often overlooked. Assume your manager and/or their manager are not in the weeds of your project. They need a top line understanding of what’s going on. I like to make sure I publicly document (Confluence, Slack Canvas, Notion, Word docs in a shared folder — use what you have available) things in my remit to help encourage folks to self-service information — or make it easy for me to repeat myself if needed.

That said, assume for important matters that they will want an email digest. It will be good to figure out how regularly they want to hear about the matter; once a week might be good if it’s important but perhaps bi-weekly or even monthly suffices if changes are slow or infrequent.

Whatever the cadence, consider that these folks are busy and will want to be able to quickly scan and digest the information. Do your best to judiciously use bullet points and tables to organize the information and highlight what’s important (whether that’s good news or bad news!).

(2) Propose direction, but don’t be precious about it
It’s important to bring a sense of stoicism to work. Your great and terrific idea may not resonate, and that may be a good thing because you may not have visibility to the bigger picture. That said, it’s important to leverage your leaders for what they see that you don’t.

I now routinely ask for guidance in 1-1’s but in lieu of saying “help!” I give my plan or recommendation and request that my leadership steer me in the right direction if I’m way off base.

I don’t take it personally if they don’t agree as that’s why I’m asking in the first place. And that’s why I say you have to not be too precious about your ideas. Sometimes it’s a good idea but not the right time and your leadership might see that but you don’t. Whatever the subject is, better to give your reasoning for why you recommend a certain course of action. This helps make sure they understand what information you are using to decision and help course correct if they or others might inadvertently be leaving you in the dark.

(3) Avoid drama
The absolute last thing your leadership wants to deal with is interpersonal conflicts. When you come into work, the focus needs to be on adding value however you can and operating as a cohesive team as much as possible.

If there are folks rubbing you the wrong way, ask yourself what impact that’s having on the work. Is someone getting under your skin because they are not being held accountable and you have to pick up the slack? If so, your manager is going to expect that you’ve tried to resolve this independently before coming to them. And when you’ve done your best trying and that doesn’t work, it’s the right time to ask for help in addressing because it’s become a waste of your time.

And, sometimes, if someone is just a jerk (the non-toxic kind) or difficult to work with, your manager may expect you to be creative and find a way to work around it — in short: make it work! In this scenario, it’s best to keep your manager informed of your workarounds and why so they can steer you appropriately. I’ve been in scenarios where my manager has given me the guidance to simply ask for forgiveness instead of permission in the interest of moving faster.

(4) Remember it’s a win-win when you ask good questions
When you think about all the people you work with, it’s important to remember you are one big team trying to work together to get things done. When you take that perspective, you realize you are working with your boss, not necessarily just for your boss. You both should be working toward the same ends. If you feel like perhaps you are not rowing in the same direction, it’s important to be proactive and ask, “I think you want me to do ABC because of XYZ reason, am I on the right track?”

Neither of you are mind readers so it’s important to ask the right questions as it’s very possible your manager may have forgotten to give you some important context to make the right direction clear. And, in that way, it’s a “win-win”: you get the information you need sooner rather than later and you make your manager look good by operating at a high level and getting the right stuff done. It took me a while in my career to realize that, if I’m doing my job right, my manager should look good. And, that’s totally ok! Ideally, if you are working for a good manager, they should recognize that and find ways to invest in your success (e.g. giving you more to oversee, including additional direct reports; giving you more access to and opportunities to present to senior executives; potentially finding training opportunities to extend your skills) so you can continue to win while they do.

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