Managing Up

One crisp fall morning, a turkey was wistfully chatting with a bull.  “I would love to get to the top of that tree,” eyeing the majestic maple near the barn, “but I am too weak to fly.”   “Well, why don’t you nibble on some of my droppings?” replied the bull.  “They are filled with nutrients.”  Closing his eyes and holding his nose, the turkey pecked at a steaming cow-pie and found that it actually gave him enough strength to reach the first branch of the tree.  The next day, after eating some more dung, he reached the second branch.  Finally, after a week of fortification, the turkey proudly flew to the top of the maple.  Moments later, his lifeless body fell to the ground with a thud, felled by a farmer with a keen eye and a steady hand.  The moral of this story: A load of bull might get you to the top, but it will not keep you there.


When you read the title “managing up”, you probably thought: ‘I cannot believe this guy is going to expound on what great brown-nosing looks like!’  Worry not.  Brown nosing is a surefire way to lose friends and alienate people.  Nobody likes a sycophant.


Managing up will accelerate your professional development.  Managing up will get you promoted.  Managing up does not take any more time or effort; it might actually take less energy than you are currently expending.  The secret is to apply the same strategic thinking to your relationship with your manager as you apply to your job.


Deliver on your manager’s highest business impact objectives

If you think that meeting and beating your own performance objectives is the complete recipe to professional glory, then you are missing a key ingredient.  Great associates develop a concrete understanding of their manager’s objectives.  This is critical not only in how you execute on your own objectives but also in what you do after you have met your goals.


When your manager hands you a set of objectives, you should ask to see theirs as well.  At a minimum, this allows you to ensure that your objectives align with theirs.  If they do not align, then work with your manager to resolve the mismatch. If your manager does not budge, then you have a major leadership problem and it is time to get a new boss.  However, you can do better than alignment.  To stack the odds in your favor, take a moment to prioritize your manager’s objectives in terms of business impact.  If you got the good stuff, then you are golden.  If not, offer to take ownership of the juiciest bits.


Assuming you are like most people on the planet, you are programmed with a desire to please.  This means that you will face an ever present temptation to launch a side initiative or two as insurance.  The little voice in your head whispers that failure on a bonus project does not count and that success will earn you untold accolades.  Resist the urge.  Unlike your parents, your spouse, and your children, managers do not like surprises.  Surprise your manager with ideas, not outcomes.  Keep your manager regularly informed of status, success, and failure.  Meet your objectives. Then, and only then, go above and beyond with projects that have your boss’s support.  Stated another way, bring your passion and your art to your work.  Paint outside the lines, but only after you have painted within them.


The advice thus far has focused on how you manage up to meet your manager’s professional objectives.  However, you should also have a clear understanding of their personal objectives.  Knowing that they want to get promoted and earn more money is too obvious and not all that constructive.  The same goes for knowing they want more time to play golf and to sip Mai Tai’s on a beach in the Caribbean.  The key is gaining insight into their strengths and their development needs.  Ask your manager if they are willing to share their development priorities and if they would like you to provide feedback to them.  Most people I meet are terrified of doing this; yet it is one of the most valuable things you can do for your career and your boss’s career.  The fastest way to get promoted is to help your boss get promoted.  Moreover, having this level of awareness will enable you to drawn upon your manager’s strengths, and compensate for their weaknesses.


Assuming they consent, do not unload on them immediately!  That will look like you were just looking for permission to complain.  Wait an appropriate amount of time, and then provide structured feedback with what they are doing well, what they should stop doing, and what they should start doing.


Mirror your manager’s communication style

In late 2004, the senior management team of my employer was replaced just as I was making the transition from a self-directed operations role to a team centric strategy role.  The new guard had a very particular and very consistent pedigree consisting of permutations on MIT, McKinsey Consulting, and PhD’s in physics.  Needless to say, the entire operating system of the company got an upgrade.  We changed the way we set strategy.  We changed the way we made decisions. And, we changed the way we communicated.   The following pretty much sums it up.  When Forbes reporter Chana Schoenberger asked Chief Executive Gene Hall six month into his new job the ‘five words you just to describe yourself’, his response was “high-energy, analytical, intuitive, fun, and organized.”


I spoke a different language.  As for MIT, I applied to the undergraduate engineering program under the auspices of joining their basketball team but got spooked when I saw the disproportionally male student body wearing calculators on their belts – really. (As a side note MIT’s varsity athletic teams are known as the “Engineers” and their mascot is a beaver because, well, “the beaver is nature’s engineer.”  They even coined the acronym DAPER for the department of athletics, physical education, and recreation.  You cannot make this stuff up.  MIT alumni – permission to laugh.)  The closest I came to McKinsey was an internship my brother had when a colleague convinced him invest his summer earnings in monogrammed Brooks Brothers shirts; full disclosure, it is also very possible that I once attended one of their recruiting receptions lured by free beer and pizza.  Finally, though I can hold my analytically, I am the first to admit that my masters in electrical engineering does not stack up against a PhD in particle physics.


Since there was no way to change who I was, my only choice was to change how I communicated.  I recognized that my new superiors applied an insanely effective framework they picked up at McKinsey in their verbal and written communications. (For more, see the situation-complication-resolution methodology detailed in the Problem Solving chapter).  With a bit of reading and a healthy dose of coaching, I learned to speak the new language.


My advice on this one is simple. If you want to be great at managing up, then run meetings, write emails, and construct presentations in your boss’s style.  That is not kissing up, that is good business.


Support your boss behind their back

One of the principles that I strive to live by is being a ‘beacon of positivity.’  Before you get worried again, I am not suggesting that you follow your manager with blind devotion.  I am merely suggesting a few simple practices that prove your loyalty, your honesty, and your commitment.  First, do not be the one that starts negative conversations about your boss.  Second, if a conversation about your boss turns negative, take the higher ground by redirecting toward their positive attributes and achievements if you genuinely believe they exist.  If that is not your style, remove yourself from the conversation.  Finally, unless they are doing something unethical or illegal, never manage around your boss.


As children, we are taught that we should not talk behind people’s backs.  More precisely, the lesson we are taught is not to speak ill of people behind their backs.  In contrast, when you truly appreciate someone, you exercise great respect and compassion by speaking positively of them behind their backs.  This lesson holds not only for your boss, but for your coworkers, family, friends, and so on.


Recommend and implement solutions

In recent years, workers in advanced economies have had to be pretty quick on their toes to survive.  In the 1990’s, labor intensive, low skilled manufacturing jobs were outsourced to countries with a lower cost of living.  The 2000’s ushered a new wave that outsourced knowledge based jobs in customer service, law, medicine, and technology.  Knowledge, no matter how esoteric and specific, is now accessible with a few key strokes.  Want to know how much tea was produced in Sri Lanka last month?  A quick search will bring you to the Sri Lanka Tea Board where you can not only find month to month production but also get production by elevation.  People who win on game shows like Jeopardy no longer command a high degree of respect.  Finding trivia is now, well, trivial.


What’s left?  At least three needs will always be present.  The first need is for jobs that simply cannot be done without physical presence.  At two ends of the spectrum, garbage collection and emergency medical service fit the bill.  The second need is for jobs that create art.  Since everything can be mass produced, what matters here is inception.  The third need is for problem solvers.


Anybody can find and deliver knowledge.  Many people can find problems; frankly people that excel only at finding problems are irritating.  The exceptional few identify the range of possible solutions, prioritize them, recommend the best option to their manager, and then follow through to implementation.  Problem solvers will always be valuable.  The next time you think that you boss is only there to help you with your problems, remember to instead be the one that helps your boss solve theirs.


Ask for advice and feedback

One of the most dangerous things you can do for your career is to assume that your manager knows you well enough to coach you.  They are as much in their own head as you are in yours and they have your peers to worry about as well.  A major part of successfully managing up is to inform your boss of your current professional development objectives and seek regular feedback.  If you have a great manager, they will send challenging projects your way and coach you to succeed simultaneously on the projects and on your personal goals.



Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become great at managing up:


  • Deliver on your manager’s highest business impact objectives
  • Mirror your manager’s communication style
  • Support your boss behind their back
  • Recommend and implement solutions
  • Ask for advice and feedback

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