“Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it . . . Look for people who will aim for the remarkable, who will not settle for the routine.” — David Ogilvy, British advertizing executive; often called The Father of Advertising.
Most people regard management as overseeing and directing the work of subordinates: giving orders, delegating tasks, providing guidance, and making sure everyone consistently produces quality output. Of course, that is a fair textbook definition.
But management doesn’t always flow downhill—great employees manage UP as well. In recent years, the theme has become an increasingly popular one in management circles. Basically, managing up hinges on actions that make life easier for both the boss and the employee, offsetting the boss’s bad productivity habits when necessary. My office manager, Jin, is a classic case-in-point of one who manages up superbly.
The Downside of Managing Up
Before I discuss ways to maximize upward management, let’s better define what managing up is not, because some people are leery of the whole idea. In a recent Forbes article, for example, the writer expresses his fear that some workers might interpret the need for managing up as a license for mind games—like corporate climbing and brown-nosing—and advises against even trying it.
People being people, some will deliberately twist the concept of managing up, and some will just misapply it. Yet in condemning the practice, I believe the Forbes writer underestimates the intelligence and self-interest of most managers—and dismisses a valuable workplace strategy. I want Jin to figure out how to manage me better. The old management philosophy of “she’ll do what I say when I tell her to” is outdated. I look to Jin for her advice and trust her to take initiative to tell ME what needs to be done, rather than sitting around waiting for me to tell her to do it. As a manager, any unreasonable demands, last-minute urgent task-dumping, poor prioritization, unrealistic deadlines, and similar productivity bombs aren’t acceptable. If your boss really is like that, there’s nothing wrong with taking respectful action to head those counterproductive behaviors off at the pass.
To make it absolutely clear: Managing up does NOT include manipulation, deliberately causing confusion, undermining authority, or damaging credibility. Aside from causing resentment that can halt your advancement, such amateur games negatively impact your personal integrity.
Managing Up Appropriately
When managing up, then, your goal must be to help both yourself and the boss, ultimately to the benefit of the entire organization. Now that we’ve discussed what managing up isn’t, let’s look at ways to approach it correctly.
1. Align yourself with your boss. Determine what’s most important and convenient for your boss, and shoot for those goals. If you don’t know what’s needed, ask. Jin comes to me each week with a prioritized task list of what she believes is the correct order, reflecting the best use of her time, and asks me to reprioritize any changes. She basically asks, “Help me help you.” In doing so, you can more easily anticipate what your boss is likely to require of you. Would she like a detailed weekly listing of what you and your team have accomplished? When should you approach her with questions? Would it be best to leave your suggestions for her daily drive time, or would she prefer to handle them during a particular time-block, or on a specific day of the week?
2. Determine her preferred communication style. Some bosses like one-on-one meetings; another might delegate directives down one level down for distribution. I like Jin sitting close to me, within ear shot, so I can randomly ask her to do things as I triage my day. So I’ve literally placed her work station right outside my office. She has spontaneous “Laura in the office” days and focused “Laura out of the office” days. Other bosses prefer to communicate on the phone or by email. I know a writer who regularly works with a magazine editor who discourages phone calls. The editor sends warm, chatty emails, but she believes calls just waste time. However, a client of mine believes it’s much more efficient to pick up the phone and end a volley of emails back and forth over a particular email. The more you can sync your communication style with your boss’s, the better you can serve her.
3. Discover your boss’s personal style. Does she come across as analytical, easygoing, passionate, authoritarian, or people-oriented? The latter may want to hear from you daily; if so, don’t miss an update. Conversely, an authoritarian may never want to hear from you unless something goes wrong. Adjust your own style to mesh with hers in order to limit friction and do your job more effectively. Never take your boss’s personality personally. You might think she doesn’t like you, when in fact, you might be the most indispensable person in her life, and she wouldn’t dream of taking a promotion without taking you along.
4. Do quality work. Turning in projects on time and under budget should be a given. True value lies in paying close attention to everything important to your boss. Take initiative without asking, lending a hand whenever she needs one. Keep her informed per her personal style and communication preferences. Build trust. In short, provide such good value she’d be a fool to even think of letting you go. Jin thinks of things before I do and lets me know what she’s put in place. It’s always such a relief!
5. Avoid company politics. Pretend politics don’t exist. Do your job well and stand by your boss. Some may sneer at this as “sucking up,” but in reality, it’s a little thing I like to call loyalty. ‘Nuff said.
6. Look for ways to increase your value. Search out new responsibilities you can take up on the boss’s behalf, as well as new opportunities for your team or group. Take over appointment scheduling. Attend meetings for your boss. Take over some of your boss’s work. Look for activities that have pressing deadlines but are low value for your boss. Jin started drafting contracts and invoices for my review, voluntarily, after watching the process and determining it was a snap. Never stop learning more about your job and how you can contribute. Study, observe, participate, and share what you’ve discovered.
The Final Analysis
When you manage up properly, you increase your value not only to your boss, but to your entire organization. You become a treasured asset she doesn’t want to lose.
Managing up requires neither mental telepathy nor manipulation: just good, careful work and a willingness to please. Not to channel Horatio Alger, but managing up reduces mostly to doing your job well and cheerfully, working hard, and maintaining a willingness to make life easier for your leadership, so that life is easier for you. Forget trying to manipulate anyone—and ignore the distrustful nabobs who claim the boss doesn’t really want your input anyway. She definitely does!