When I interviewed a number of mid-career managers about their greatest pain points, one item came up again and again: managing up.
You can find a lot of great articles online about managing up, and they’re useful for tips and things you can try to do to manage up better. However, I’m interested in exploring some of the nuances in managing up to provide some insight that could mean the difference between crossing your fingers that you’re doing it right and completely nailing it.
Let’s start where we always start: defining our terms. “Managing up” encompasses the behavior and communications to your boss which aligns your results with larger priorities. (This is my definition. Other somewhat similar definitions are here and here.)
So what are the challenges that can make fulfilling this definition so hard?
Challenge 1. Managing up effectively will require that you have a clear picture of your boss’ priorities.
If you don’t know, then ask. Your activities and your team’s activities must be aligned with what the department or company is trying to accomplish. Your reports and updates should be in direct correlation to where your boss’ focus is. Think of it this way: if you had to think of the best way to communicate something that would help your boss report to her boss, that’s what you ought to go with.
What this strategy helps you avoid: Irrelevance.
Pro tip. Avoid this common trap: Most people who find managing up difficult provide communication and updates to leadership focused on activity through the lens of duties and responsibilities listed in their (or their teams’) job description. Do not do this. Instead, report your results through the lens of department or company priorities and initiatives – in others words, how are your teams contributing to X, supporting Y, or furthering Z?
Don’t have results yet? That’s fine – then report progress toward a desired result. Name the result you’re working toward, where you are in the process, and what’s next.
Challenge 2. You are unclear on the ideal level of detail in communications required to manage up well.
Use the following framework to develop communications for each of the larger initiatives and priorities that you are reporting on.
Desired outcome > Strategic decisions with rationale > Responsible parties and timelines
This is a modified version of the D.A.R.T. Method (TM) for Deliberate Planning, and it serves as an excellent framework for this context. The best thing you can do when managing up is to simplify, and the D.A.R.T. Method helps you do that.
Lengthier communications are not better. If you can anchor the updates to something already on the boss’ top 5 list, then there is no need for a lot of extraneous information.
What this strategy helps you avoid: Being unnecessarily convoluted.
Pro tip. Regardless of how you organize your communications, always put the punch line up front. In all managing-up communications, do not follow the typical story arc where there’s a grand unveiling at the end of the email or report. An executive summary (if it’s an extensive communication), or a simple line at the top of the email works well:
“My team is on track for XYZ Initiative.”
“We had a customer service bump in the road that you might hear about, but has been resolved completely. We are updating SOPs as a result, and are on track to complete XYZ as planned.”
“Yellow alert on an evolving situation. I already called you about this. See details below, but call when you can so we can decide how to proceed.”
Challenge 3. You are unclear on the ideal frequency of communications to manage up well.
Of course, you and your boss may have preferences on frequency. However, if you feel you don’t have enough explicit guidance on these preferences, then I would turn again to the anchor of your boss’ priorities and their timelines.
What this strategy helps you avoid: Inefficiency.
Pro tip. Give yourself some cushion. If there are monthly or quarterly targets, then speak to those in a timely manner. If there are quarterly reviews, ensure that you are providing updates enough in advance to leave some time for both data reconciliation between you and your teams, as well as Q&A between you and your boss.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you do more work in these managing-up communications. I’m suggesting that you create more value. Abandon the uncertainty, the wordiness, the minutiae of your managing-up communications and trade it in for alignment, simple focus, and big picture utility to your leadership. Even if your job is relatively the same day and day out, you can still take advantage of these strategies. In fact, they might even becomes more critical to managing up!
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