When you were an individual contributor, you probably spent a few particularly rough days thinking about how different things would be if you were in charge. We all fantasize about running the show sometimes, and imagine what it would be like to finally be in charge. To have the office with the door that shuts, to be the one issuing the orders, and to be the one telling everyone else how things are going to go.
But once you finally get promoted into a management role, it doesn’t take too long before you realize there’s a whole new set of rules you have to learn in order to be successful.
You don’t get to just start freestyling, even though you’re the one with “Lead” or “Manager” in your title — you still have bosses and boards that you have to please, and now there’s a whole lot more riding on your ability to communicate upwards.
So how do you manager your manager, when you’re a manager? Here’s a simple guide to managing up to get you started.
If you take nothing else away from this blog post, good communication is the one thing you need to master in order to succeed in “managing up” as a manager. If you can communicate, you can succeed; all the other stuff will work itself out over time if you’re a clear, effective, open communicator.
Leadership is all about keeping everyone on the same page. Your role is to facilitate good work, and people can only do their best work when expectations are clear — this goes for your team and for your boss.
You are the link between the people who run your company and the people who do the work to keep your company running. It’s your job to make sure each one has what it needs from the other. What does your team need in order to complete the directives of the company leadership? What are they able to do, and in how much time?
And it’s not enough just to know the answers to these questions — you’ve got to make sure they are communicated upwards so that your team is given the proper resources to do that work and your managers know what to expect. Make sure your bosses are primed and ready for what your team can deliver. This includes being clear and proactive about deadlines, estimates, and final products; your job is to let people know what is coming and how best to deliver.
Good communication means updating status before people need it. Managing up means your boss should never have to ask for a status update from you. You should be continually providing them with the updates and information important to them in a format that is meaningful to them (ie. if they’re a meeting kind of person, schedule a regular in-person update; if they prefer email, send a weekly status note).
Status should address the things that matter most to them. Address your biggest challenges, highlight your biggest successes, and ask any big questions you need help with in order to keep your team moving forward.
It’s a good idea to communicate status on a regular schedule so your manager knows they can expect to hear from you (Kate M and I do a ninja planning session and status update call every Monday morning, for example). You should also get proactive about sending updates and questions as needed throughout the week.
Don’t wait until your boss notices a problem or a win and brings it up to you; it is your job to bring the most important things to their attention so they don’t have to dig into your work for you. You should assess what your boss needs to know about and then give it to them before they have to ask for it.
Communicating matters even (and especially) when you don’t know the answers. Most of us tend to be really communicative about our work when we have something good to say. “My team is done with this new feature and it is perfect! Feel free to send feedback aka praise at your earliest convenience.”
We are less likely to communicate status when we have problems or don’t know the answers to the questions we’re being asked. But it is those times — when we don’t know the answer — that it is even more important to keep communicating. Timing matters. If your boss has to ask you status because you’re not giving it *and* you don’t even have an update for them? That’s bad.
You need to tell them “I don’t know” before they come asking, “Do you not know?”, because if they are asking you, then it means that your not knowing has already caused a problem big enough for them to notice.
If you need extra time or don’t have all the information yet, it’s important that your boss knows this as soon as possible so they can adjust their expectations and give your team the time or resources that they’ll need.
Don’t expect that you’ll be able to fix everything on your own and get your team to slap everything together at the last possible second so you still look good to your own boss. Maybe it will work, but it’s not fair to your team; don’t make things harder for them just because you are unwilling to admit when you are lost. Leadership is keeping everyone on the same page, no matter how bad the page might look at the time.
When you are a manager, it is important to see your interactions with your own leader as opportunities for collaboration. This person may be your boss, but you are now representing and advocating for a whole group of people who depend on you — your team — so be prepared to speak up. You each have essential information to bring to the meeting that will help move the company forward; it is a two-way street, and you should be prepared to both talk and listen.
Give them the information *they* want. The things that matter most to your office administrator are different than the things that matter most to your CEO. Everyone has different priorities at work, even though they are all working towards the same big goals.
It is your job to understand what things mean the most to your boss, and present those things to them clearly. What are their biggest goals? Where are their pressures coming from? Who do they have to answer to? What is your boss expected to know?
While you want to give your boss a complete update when you meet, you also don’t want to bombard them with so much information that they can’t easily pick out what is most important to them. Make a bullet point list before your meeting and address each of their key points. Make it ridiculously simple for them to check off all the answers they want to get. Be someone who makes it easy for them.
Highlight your team. When we meet with our boss, we like to hear from them that we are doing a good job. And as individual contributors, we usually get that!
But as a manager, your job is to deflect praise and absorb blame. Any amazing results you’ve gotten are the result of the team members who made that happen — not your amazing leadership skills. You should be prepared to point out great results from the people who work for you, and communicate the praise from your boss down to your employees.
Make sure people get credit for being awesome, and that they know they are appreciated. Consider yourself a conduit of good vibes. :)
Master the art of the concise message. As a manager, you’ll quickly discover that running a team means you are suddenly in tons of meetings, talking to lots of new people, and processing incoming information from your team and your leadership all day long. You’re busy — and your boss is probably even busier — so managing up effectively means being concise.
Your boss don’t have time (or interest, usually) in a long drawn-out discussion of recent problems or highlights from your team. They need to know the pertinent information, and they need to know it quick.
Write drafts of your communication in advance, and get used to the idea of intensely editing your communications. Write out all the updates and information you want to share, and then cut it in half. Pare it down to the barest details. Tell them what they need to know, and make it obvious what is most important. Leave the rest behind.
The better you can edit your message, the more likely the good stuff is to be noticed and acted on. And that’s all you really wanted anyways.
Any time you work for someone, it is your job to make them look good. They are in charge of your department or your organization, and they represent you and your whole team on a larger scale; as such, it is the great work that you and your team do that helps them to lead, advocate for, and represent your team effectively.
To understand how best to interact with your boss and develop a good relationship with them, try to get in their head and see yourself from their perspective. Rather than thinking about managing up as figuring out a way to get your manager to work better with you, try thinking about how you impact them and how you can make your impact more positive.
What makes you fit in the context of their life? Who are you to them?
What is the 1 thing you could do that would most improve their life if you took care of it today?
How can you be someone who leaves them walking on sunshine?
What pressure can you relieve to make them feel lucky to have you in your role?
How can you be “the best person for the job” in their eyes?
You want to have a good relationship with your boss. It makes you more successful, it makes you more powerful in advocating for your team, and it makes your team’s life easier because you are able to get them what they need and give them clear, meaningful direction.
You don’t have to be best friends, but you do have to work well together. And it’s up to you to make that happen.
Managing up is an ongoing process
You won’t get to the office one day and realize that all your managing up has worked and you no longer need to proactively communicate status with your boss. This is one of the key functions of your job as manager; you will never be done. It is ongoing, and you should strive to get better and better at it.