How to Manage Up

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Over my years working with people, clients and employees, I’ve found that managing up could solve a lot of workplace ills—and that few people think to do it or realize that they should do it.

If you want to advance in your career more quickly than automatic or default promotions may allow, you need to manage up.

What is “Managing Up?”

First, a definition:

Managing up comprises the meetings, processes, communications parameters, and reports a person intentionally develops to ensure a mutually productive, effective relationship with the person or people managing her work.

More broadly, managing up can apply to how people work with company leadership even beyond their immediate managers and it can apply to coworkers as well. Even without a manager–employee relationship, people need to create systems through which they can efficiently and effectively collaborate for mutual success.

Why Managing Up is Important

When you get what you need to succeed in your job with minimal friction, and when your boss gets what you need from your work in the way she needs it, you’ll not only have a much better work life and experience—you’ll get ahead in your career much more quickly.

Few of us align completely in work and communication styles, preferences, and perceptions. Few of us fully know what other people need, what they do and do not know, and what skills they have and what skills they would like to develop.

Further, all of us have a lot on our plates. In addition to her other work responsibilities, your boss has at least a few people to manage, all of whom have different personality types, preferences, and perceptions. If you can help her know how to work with you and try to understand how to best work with her, you’ll function a lot better together.

Signs you need to manage up:

  • You feel micromanaged. Your boss won’t leave you alone with follow ups and nitpicking.

  • You don’t know what you need to do or what skills to develop to succeed in your job. You don’t know how to make your boss happy with your work.

  • You don’t know how your boss measures your work or your performance.

  • Your boss doesn’t give you information you need and gives you information you don’t need.

  • Your boss cancels meetings with you and doesn’t respond to your e-mail messages and voice mail.

  • You don’t talk with your boss other than in large meetings and chance hallway encounters.

Though it may feel awkward to approach a person in authority to request a conversation with an agenda you’ve set and with specific questions and inquiries, she’ll welcome it. Your boss reached her position because of her abilities in one or more areas that likely don’t directly translate to a facility in managing people. Though it may seem otherwise, she does want to do her best by you—as helping you helps her. She’ll welcome assistance in setting the program.

If you’ve ever assumed anywhere in your life that people will just intuit what you need and want—perhaps in your personal relationship, mayhaps?—you’ve learned that assuming people can read your mind just leads to disappointment and frustration.

How Do I Manage Up?

Where do you start, when it comes to managing up?

  1. Get clear on what you need and want out of your work and your relationship with your boss. Conversely, consider what your boss needs from your work and in her career. Further, consider the company’s objectives, how you and your boss fit into them, and how your work together can serve them. Write down these thoughts, organize them, revisit them, and even run them by someone you trust for a second opinion.

  2. Create an agenda for a meeting with your boss that you can use as a guide for your discussion. On the agenda, include a line item for setting priorities with your boss for the year and for the quarter ahead. Include another line item noting what information, updates, and feedback you need—and on what schedules—to succeed in serving your goals, her goals, and the company’s goals. Another agenda point should cover what she needs from you to feel clear on your work and how it serves the goals you’ve set together. For example: How often does she want to receive reports from you about your work? How does she like these reports presented? Does she prefer e-mail communication, phone calls, or in-person discussion? Does she want the information in a spreadsheet, in a bulleted e-mail, or in a narrative document? Finally, include an agenda item to gain clarity on how she will manage, document, and measure your performance and on how you will know her assessment of your work. Before your meeting, run this draft agenda by someone you trust for a second opinion.

  3. Request a meeting with your boss. As you should never request a meeting without a reason for the request, explain that you want to ensure you understand her top priorities for the year and for the next quarter and that you want to collaborate on how you can best align your work with these priorities to serve her needs most effectively.

  4. Conduct the meeting. You requested the meeting, so you lead the meeting. Talk through your agenda. Take a nurturing, collaborative, open tone. (Don’t charge in with demands.) Stay open to your boss’s suggestions and ideas. Truly collaborate—don’t dictate. If you need to set another meeting to finalize the discussion and the determinations on how you’ll best work together to achieve the objectives, do so during the meeting.

  5. Send a recap of the meeting discussion within twenty-four hours, including what you’ve agreed on together for your workflow and, if applicable, the date of your second meeting.

Likely, in your meeting or meetings, you’ve set a schedule on which you and your boss will review work and progress. Before each of these meetings, send an agenda outlining the discussion. Agendas sent in advance will improve meeting efficiency and help you both prepare to discuss the same topics. In preparing your meeting agenda and talking points, develop ideas for your boss that align with her stated goals and priorities and the company’s goals and priorities.

Remember: Never come to your boss with problems and issues to which you haven’t prepared possible solutions.

After every meeting, as with your initial meetings, send notes that recap the conversation. These notes will help you reference the agreements from the conversation and help you prepare for the next meeting.

After you’ve set your parameters, time will pass, things will change, and ideas that seemed like good ones won’t work as well as you’d thought. If you get off track from what you’d planned in your meeting, you can remind your boss about the agreements you’ve set together or you can request another meeting to make adjustments. (Do give her the benefit of the doubt. If it seems like she’s flouting your agreements, don’t assume the worst. With a lot going on, we can all forget something we discussed in the past. Rarely will bosses intentionally try to sabotage employees.)

Of course, managing up goes beyond meetings. Between meetings, try to anticipate the needs of your boss and her questions and concerns. Try to proactively address them. Keep her apprised of your work and progress via her preferred communication method.

Communicating in the way your manager likes communication and answering her questions before she asks them will get you flying high.

Even CEOs Manage Up

Lest you think only junior staff need to manage up, let me assure you otherwise: In work and in life, everyone manages in all directions. Client satisfaction, client success, client services? All these buzzy business terms simply comprise different ways to say “managing up.”

Even the boss manages up. And even if the boss is the person running the company, the supposed top of the top, she manages up. After all, companies serve their clients, which makes clients the bosses. Especially for the business owner.

Even CEOs at massive corporations manage up. How does the board want to receive the information it needs and by when does it need to receive it? How can the CEO help the board help her? How can the CEO anticipate the board’s requests and address them in advance?

Smart CEOs manage up consciously, carefully, and skillfully. In fact, many CEOs achieved their current heights through careers of managing up. If they hit the top through managing up, they won’t stop now.

How do you manage up? What tips can you share?