Managing Up

Earlier this week, I came across Hannah Ornell, another GovLooper, asking for definitions of “managing up.” I left my thoughts as a comment, but decided to write a blog post so I can find this later.

I coach my team pretty frequently on managing up. To me, it’s a set of actions under the umbrella of getting your needs met by meeting your manager’s needs.

For example, your manager says “we need to clearly communicate this standard to regulated companies.” You know that you’ve wanted to explore a new communications channel (e.g., social media), so you take this opportunity to suggest it to your manager as a way to achieve the broader goal.

Or you’ve noticed that how long it takes to file your time card, and come up with a way to make it more efficient. You realize it’ll also help your manager review things more quickly, so you focus on the benefit to the manager when you proactively raise your idea. Don’t wait until asked; just find a time that works or both of you, and as you start discussing, focus first on how you’re helping meet your manager’s needs. This is just human nature at work: everyone appreciates someone else being thought of first. Of course, also mention how it’ll make your life easier.

Managing up also means not surprising your boss with either good news or bad news. Help them deal with everything by keeping them informed and being up front when you make a mistake (everyone makes mistakes, even your manager!).

Finally, it means thinking of how best to help your manager, who is responsible for various things:

  • getting work done: not only do the work, but report back when it’s done. I don’t mean every time you answer the phone, but if your manager specifically asks you to do something, send two short notes: 1) “I’m on it” and 2) “It’s done.”
  • reporting further up the chain: be clear about your accomplishments to help brag about your unit. This also helps you because your boss knows the good stuff you’re doing.
  • helping you get your job done (believe it or not, helping you ranks right up there with telling you what to do): tell them when you run into an obstacle. Don’t expect your manager to know everything; it’s impossible.
  • making decisions about your work: come in with proposed solutions instead of only identifying problems and relying on your manager to solve them.
  • balancing time and attention among competing obligations: when you set up time to talk, be clear about the purpose for talking and get to the point. Also be clear about what you need from your manager (make a decision, allocate resources, review your thinking, give you feedback, etc.). Finally, give your boss a deadline! You’re not being pushy, you’re indicating priorities when you set a deadline.
  • reducing budget: do your own thinking about what you would cut and why, and be ready for that request.
  • allocating a windfall: have your “elevator pitch” ready, so if some additional resources come in (money, time, contractor support, etc.) you’re ready to ask for what you need.
  • being aware of what’s going on: know your stuff and ready to talk about it on a moment’s notice. But if you don’t know, don’t make it up. Commit to following up and then do so. And when you hear something relevant to your manager’s needs, share it!
  • trying to get it all done: when you can help, volunteer. In general, be a team player, even if that means sometimes doing things normally done by others (from solving problems to making copies).
  • helping you grow (a good boss wants to help you expand your abilities, but can’t be watching over you every second, so help out): speak up any time you spot an opportunity to increase your skills, speak up: training, conferences, webinars, or even meetings that interest you. Think beyond formal training, too. For example, if you know of a senior-level management discussion, ask to tag along. You’ll probably learn about the subject, but you also might be surprised at how much you learn about how those meetings go. For example, I know that earlier in my career, I assumed senior level meetings were very stiff, formal affairs. Now I know they can be just as informal as every other meeting, depending on the circumstances.
  • assessing you: by managing up effectively, you demonstrate several good things about yourself, including setting yourself up as someone who’s ready for more leadership.

Closely related to these concepts are two excellent posts by Steve Radick. I sent them around to my team and many manager colleagues, and I strongly recommend that both employees and managers read them. Managers get a double benefit, since they’re also employees:

In sum, managing up isn’t about sucking up, it’s about helping yourself by helping your manager.

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