Managing up at work is one of those important skills that is not taught in any college or graduate degree course but is extremely necessary.
Unfortunately, some professionals never learn the skill at all.
But those who have successful leadership careers are extremely gifted in this area.
What Is Managing Up At Work?
Managing up is the art of building strong, communicative relationships with more senior colleagues in your organization, particularly your direct manager.
If you’re thinking to yourself – “I don’t see this where I work” – just know that it is in fact happening.
But it may be happening so smoothly that you aren’t even aware of it.
Or it may be occurring elsewhere in your organization, but not with those that you connect with regularly.
Managing up is such an important part of the traditional work environment that even Chief Executive Officers proactively “manage up” with board members and big customers to ensure the best strategic and operational decisions are made for the organization.
Managing up effectively requires you to leverage various capabilities including communication, influencing, empathy, contextual understanding, trust, problem solving and much more.
By the end of this article, you will not only be able to spot when managing up is occurring around you.
But you will also be able to step up your own managing up game.
Why Is Managing Up At Work Important?
Your ability to effectively manage up will ultimately make it easier for you, your boss, and your team to do your jobs and deliver the best results.
That’s the outcome.
This will occur because managing up helps to ensure strong goal alignment across multiple levels of the organization – so all oars of the boat row in sync.
Because of the communication and influencing that occurs, managing up also increases speed of decision making.
These benefits are all critical in the course of doing business, no matter the size or industry of your company.
Some professionals make the mistake of only “managing up” when there is a problem or situation that needs to be addressed.
But that just-in-time approach takes triple the effort and rarely results in the benefits mentioned earlier.
It’s best to think of managing up as an ongoing investment strategy – where you put a little in every day and the benefits start to accumulate immediately. Whether you have to dip into that goodwill bank tomorrow or a year from now, you confidently know what you’ve invested, how much has accumulated, and that you can safely withdraw from that account. With the understanding that you will continue to replenish all withdrawals over time.
Although managing up is an ongoing activity, it makes every leader’s job so much easier.
Three Practical Managing Up At Work Tips For Leaders
1.Know what your boss wants and needs.
This requires genuine curiosity from you about your boss’ job. You will also have to practice empathy and put yourself in your boss’ shoes to better understand what they do and why. You can observe these things or ask directly. Or approach using a combination of both.
- What is your boss’ goals?
- What does success look like for the team?
- What is your boss’ management style?
- What is your boss’ preferred ways of working and communicating?
Example: One of my former boss’ was a great strategic thinker. He spent 90% of his time setting strategy and managing his peers, both of which were critical to move our business function to where we needed to be.
However, the team initially struggled (in silence) under his leadership.
There was a lot of stress in the work environment for several months. Until in a private conversation I relayed the challenges that the team was facing with day-to day operations because the entire team (over 1000 people) felt a lack of direction from him.
My boss looked perplexed and simply stated “My job is to set the strategy. I expect you and your peers to run the day to day and make the necessary decisions to align to the strategy.”
Whoa! That one statement cleared so much up. It addresses both c and d above.
The entire function had been waiting for him to tell us directly how he wanted the day to day operations to go.
And his expectation all along had been that his leadership team would work together to take that responsibility on.
Once I heard that, I coached my boss (yes! you can coach up as well) that he needed to explicitly communicate his expectation to our entire leadership team so they could step in and fill that gap.
2.Share what your team is doing and how they make an impact.
As a leader, you have a responsibility to always represent your team.
To give them visibility. To make sure your boss and others in the organization understand the great work your team does and the impact they make.
Too often leaders are reluctant to “brag” about team successes. Or they only feel comfortable bringing this up at performance review time.
However, managing up includes being transparent with your boss about what you and the team are working on and significant “wins” throughout the business year.
One thing that has worked well for me in leadership roles throughout my career is to keep a one-page dashboard or report that is updated regularly.
The dashboard should contain a summary status of all major projects and metrics the team for which the team is accountable.
The benefit of this one-pager is that it can serve multiple purposes – it can be a communication tool for you to manage up with your boss, you can use it within your own group so they understand the team’s collective impact, and you can leverage it with other stakeholders as well.
The other benefit of sharing what your team is doing throughout the year is that it minimizes surprises for your boss and other stakeholders.
In other words, when one of your projects hits a significant issue your boss should never be in a position to say “I didn’t even know your team was working on that”.
Or if you need to request additional resources, you will be able to point to why and where all of your existing resources are deployed.
3.Make yourself invaluable.
In your current role, you see, hear and experience things that your boss does not. But ask yourself “Would my boss want to know about this? Should my boss know about this”?
One way to make yourself invaluable is to be a resource for your boss that they would not normally get otherwise.
Caution: This is not about spying on your colleagues or being a snitch. This is also not about getting involved in office politics. You should avoid both when possible.
However, it is about helping to make sure your boss is in the best position to effectively make business decisions and manage the team. (The story of what I did to support my former “strategy only” boss is a good example of how this could play out.)
Another way to make yourself invaluable is to proactively solve business problems, even if they don’t fall within your direct line of responsibility.
This shows you are capable of looking at the bigger picture, are a team player, and that you can be proactive rather than just reactive.
Inquire about what keeps your boss up at night. The answer to that question will help point you in the direction of how you may be able to make yourself invaluable.
Another way to go about this is to simply ask your boss “Other than my direct responsibilities, how can I help you meet your goals and objectives”.
You could also reflect on your strengths that may be different from your boss’ and lend your skills and talent in those areas.
These three practical tips have served me well all throughout my career. And have resulted in strong relationships with the next level of management and kept me at the top of the list for new and bigger opportunities.
I encourage you to integrate them into your workplace routine to increase your impact and strengthen your leadership brand.