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The five rules of managing up
Leadership Development

The five rules of managing up

Dan Pontefract
May 16, 2023

Most of us have a boss. Some of us actually like them.

The “boss” is that person who is ultimately responsible for your status in the organization. They can make or break your career. So too they hold power to continue or bring to an end your employment. Maybe you’re a full-time employee or a contractor. Either way, it is perhaps one of your most important relationships in life. (Hint: it’s much more important than your relationship with your mobile phone.)

Unless you’re a sole proprietor running your own business without a board of directors, there will always be someone who reigns over your employment.

CEOs report into chairs of the board. SVPs report into CEOs. Directors report into VPs. Managers report into directors. Individual contributors, team leads, and other commonly used front-line titles report into managers. It’s been like this for decades. It’s not going to change, either.

The relationship between you and your direct leader can be anywhere from tenuous to fantastic.

Wherever you land on the spectrum, it’s a rather important skill to possess. That is, how do you manage up?

Many people consider the term a derogatory one; “managing up.” Always the contrarian, I beg to differ. If leaders both lead and manage, what’s wrong with you—as the subordinate in the leader-subordinate relationship—managing up? After all, leaders are “managing down,” aren’t they?

First off, be proactive.

Everyone is tasked with projects, deliverables, goals and actions. Nobody likes a surprise. Whether you have good news to report or potentially bad news, your communication strategy ought to be one that is first and foremost proactive. Get ahead of everything and anything. That doesn’t mean being an overly zealous and careless communicator to the point of annoyance. It means to be constantly thinking about where you are at with your tasks, and how/when you will position yourself accordingly with your boss.

Second, Lie.

Wait, what? That’s right; I said lie. Well, sort of. When managing up, one item to consider is whether you want to tell the entire story. Being proactive is critical, but providing all the gory details may not be a useful strategy. Imagine a performance issue with one of your team members. Perhaps there was inappropriate conduct. Rather than unleashing the entirety of the situation to your boss, ensure they are aware of the generalities of the scenario rather than the specifics. And ensure they know you are on top of it, and the outcome.

Third, ask for their assistance.

A boss always likes to feel wanted, if not needed. Far too many direct reports fail to appreciate their boss’s ego. “They’re my boss,” some will muse, “so why should I stroke their ego?” Well, you should. Period. With any luck, they attained the position of “boss” because of superior performance during their career. (That’s the hope.) There is unquestionably no harm in asking. Some of us believe it’s a sign of weakness with our character or leadership skills. It’s not. It demonstrates respect for your boss, and you might even get something out of it.

Fourth, offer your assistance.

In this the age of organizational freneticism, bosses are stressed, overly busy, and constantly trying to find ways to “do more with less.” Budget cutbacks, staff attrition (whether voluntary or involuntary) and constant restructuring are widespread issues that bosses have to handle. Inbox zero has become a dream. 40-hour work weeks are a distant memory. Every now and then I suggest that you offer up your assistance. Perhaps it’s in your 1-1 status review meeting. Maybe it’s in an email (sigh, more emails) or embedded somewhere else. Whatever the mechanism, when you offer to take something off of your leader’s plate—or simply suggesting you have a block of time over the next month, quarter, whatever to chip in—it goes a long way to furthering your relationship. It also demonstrates your sense of empathy.

Fifth and finally, skip past your boss.

Managing up should not stop with your immediate leader. They just happen to be the person directly connected to you via the org chart. I have seen people who occasionally skip past their boss to great advantage. Maybe you can come up with ways in which to physically say hello, be it at the end of a meeting, a town hall session, or even the elevator or parking lot. If you have established a relationship of some sort, you might even contemplate an email that outlines some of your accomplishments. Better yet, you might even highlight creative ideas that could help the team’s (or organization’s) strategy. You could offer your assistance somehow. In any case, you will want to gauge whether to involve your direct leader in any of your interactions so as not to seem rogue or disrespectful.

Managing up is not necessarily a negative concept. Indeed it could simply be another tool in your toolbox of career development.

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