Managing Up and Getting Ahead
Date Published: 01 June 2022
If you're an employee, you probably have a boss, manager, supervisor, or similarly titled person to whom you report. Normally, you figure it's their job to "manage" you, and your job to do what they tell you. But it's actually a two-way relationship, and understanding this can have a very positive impact on your career.
The idea of "managing up" has been around for a long time. The "up" part refers to your organization chart, which typically has the CEO or owner at the top, managing those immediately below them, who in turn report up the chart.
Typical management flows downward. Managing up inverts this traditional notion and provides guidance for "managing your manager". It's something every employee should think about and apply where appropriate, not just those who think their boss is a terrible manager. Managing up is just a term used to describe your relationship with your boss, and how you manage that relationship.
I recently read an article that lists 11 things to keep in mind when managing up. It's worth a quick read; I'll refer to a few of their points here with my own take on them.
Managing up is also something we've discussed a few times recently in my devBetter coaching group. I've promised them a more in-depth look at the topic, which is what I intend this article to provide.
Bottom Line Up Front
This is the most important piece of advice in this whole article:
As an employee, your job is to make your boss look good to their boss.
That's it. That's the bottom line. If you do that, you'll be successful. If you do that better and more consistently than your peers, you'll be promoted quicker and will get ahead.
But wait, what if your boss is the owner or the CEO? Then realize what every CEO and owner already knows, which is that they don't just have one boss but many. CEOs report to boards and/or shareholders. Owners report to clients and customers. Figure out whose opinion your boss cares about, and focus there.
If you were your boss, what would be most important to you? What do you think their boss is asking of them? What do you think you could do that would make their job of managing you easier? Use your empathy skills to put yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine what's driving them. What are they worried about? What's causing them stress? How can you remove that stress?
For example, if your boss periodically asks you for status reports, offer to send them one every week.
If your boss doesn't communicate enough, regardless of the reason (they're too busy, they think you don't need guidance, they're just bad communicators... doesn't matter), you can get pretty far by practicing empathy. If you were them, what would you do? If they're doing things or asking for things that don't make sense to you, can you put yourself in their position and try to come up with a logical reason for their behavior?
Once you understand your boss's motivations, you can anticipate them and meet them before they even think to ask you.
Even better than trying to guess what your boss's goals and metrics are, from the perspective of their boss, is to get them directly. Why not just ask your boss what their boss's goals are for them (and, by extension, for you and your team or org). Ask how you can most directly help them achieve their goals.
Another important aspect of communication is intent. In the military, an operation order (OPORD) always includes the commander's intent, so that soldiers and lower-level leaders can use their own discretion to achieve the commander's goals even if the rest of the plan goes off the rails.
Do your best to get your manager's intent first and foremost before worrying about implementation details. If you know their goals and metrics as well as how they intend to achieve them, you can usually make better autonomous decisions to support them when they're not right there to ask how to do something.
Many of us are working remotely these days. If you're remote from your boss, you should work on overcommunicating with them and your team. You don't have the benefit of frequent office face time and hallway conversations, so you need to make up for that by using whatever communication channels you do have as frequently and effectively as possible. That doesn't mean to constantly pester them with Slack DMs and chatty emails. But things like sending a brief follow up email after a meeting or conversation summarizing what was said and action items would be appropriate. Confirming your plan for the week at the start of the week, and summarizing your progress at the end, as a series of short bullet points, would probably be appropriate. Onsite employees can do these things, too, but remote employees have even more need for such things.
Praise in Public
Every manager should know the adage, "praise in public; criticize in private." Bad managers don't know or don't follow this advice, but I've found it to be incredibly valuable. Your boss values praise just as much as you do, and getting it unsolicited (and sincerely) from their direct reports is often extremely valuable. Telling them you think they're doing a good job in a private one-on-one meeting is nice, but that's "in private". Remember, who does your boss want to impress, and how can you put your praise in front of that person?
- Can you praise your boss on the company Slack for something they did that you honestly appreciate or were impressed with?
- Can you write your boss a recommendation on LinkedIn or similar?
- Can you share a positive interaction or anecdote you had with your boss on social media? Bonus points if it's both funny and positive. Consider running it by your boss first if you're not sure they'll appreciate it.
- Do you have a relationship with your boss's boss (or even higher)? Can you share something positive about your boss to them in the course of some other interaction you might have (and ideally CC your boss, but that's not required).
Your boss loves your praise. Figure out what they do well that you can share. On the other hand, if you don't have anything good to say, then don't say anything at all in this case. My advice in that case is to figure out how to fire your boss by finding another position inside or outside of your organization (or, as I heard someone once did, find your boss another position by submitting their name to recruiters).
Of course the other side of this adage ("criticize in private") applies just as well, as should go without saying. Avoid criticizing or correcting your boss publicly, and especially anywhere their boss is present. You need to develop trust and a good relationship with your manager before you offer them critical feedback, and do your best while doing so to ensure they understand that you're offering it with their own interests at heart.
If you have a boss you like, do whatever you can to help them be successful. It's likely they will reciprocate. It's not unusual for fast-moving leaders within organizations to take better positions at new organizations, and then turn around and bring their best people with them soon afterward. Ries and Trout have a great book, Horse Sense, that discusses this concept at length.
The easiest way to get ahead in your organization and your career is to work for a boss who is going places, and make yourself indispensable to them.
Managing up is all about how you develop your side of the relationship with your boss or manager. See your boss as a human being with goals, fears, stresses, and ego. Figure out what they value, an obvious one being how they're perceived by their boss, and help them achieve it. Remember the main unspoken job you have as an employee has is to make your boss look good to their boss. Do that, and you'll almost certainly be successful in your organization and your career.
Steve is an experienced software architect and trainer, focusing on code quality and Domain-Driven Design with .NET.