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Strategies for managing up

Ever felt like your boss is the one stunting your professional growth? That you are held back because they don’t listen or don’t recognise your contributions? Maybe you’ve recently had a performance review that you felt just didn’t demonstrate your worth. Even if you like your boss as a person, if you feel like they just don’t give you what you need professionally, then it is time to start actively managing them. Yes, managing-up really is a thing, and it is one the most important things for accelerating your career, whatever stage you are at. Even entrepreneurs need to manage up to their board and investors.

When I started out in my career,I stepped up quickly, took opportunities and ran with them. But I quickly found that I wasn’t always getting the recognition for some of the contributions I was making, or given the opportunities that I saw others around me getting. Don’t get me wrong: I did well in the early years of my career, which led me to the C-suite just 7 years after my Ph.D. (all without the traditional MBA!). But partly I did well because although I coasted for the first 6 months after my Ph.D. as I needed the breathing space… I also realised what was missing. I needed to actively manage my managers. I figured this out early on, and then navigated my way to better engagement and more opportunities, all aligned with my why and my passions

I’ve seen many other women experience the same thing. Sometimes, like me, they notice it early on – typically because something hits us that we want to fix.

But for many, it takes several years and often a specific boss and a very negative experience to appreciate that we are the only ones in control of our opportunities and our own future. Not your boss, not the CEO, not your partner, nor your family. We are the only ones in true control of our own opportunities. Sure, others along the way have huge influence, but that is why we need to manage those people, particularly those around and above us. We need to actively manage our professional relationships. First and foremost, we need to manage the one relationship which has the ability to open up multiple doors. We need to manage our bosses.

Actively managing the relationship, interactions and the views that a boss has of us can open far more doors than almost any other relationship.

What does managing up mean?

Many clients come to me with a specific issue with a boss or colleague. Typically it is a relationship that is currently dysfunctional and stifling progress for both my client and the rest of the whole team. We then set to ‘fixing’ it. Often seen as ‘fixing’ the boss. But really, what we are doing is something that we should all be doing from day one in every single job: managing our boss’ interactions with us, how they interpret what we do, and the opportunities we get as a result. By waiting until the relationship has deteriorated we spend time healing a relationship that never should have got to where it is. 

Managing up really is what it sounds like: it is actively ‘managing’ those above you. And it shouldn’t be seen as a thing we only do for difficult people. It shouldn’t be reserved for when things are going wrong. Managing up should be used every single day of your career. High Performers use managing up all the time and have done for many years. And even when you are the boss (yes if you want to be you can be!), you will still use these tools for interactions with key stakeholders. 

The only reason that ‘managing-up’ has become a phrase is that there is a false expectation that management is only ever downwards. But if you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know that leadership can be about leading down, up, sideways and worldwide! Anyone can lead anyone else, irrespective of your relationship. And yes you can lead your boss. Managing your boss is therefore an extension of this. So start managing your relationship with your boss as well as leading them. Be intentional about what you need and want from the relationship and manage your interactions.

Because a relationship needs attention and intention, which doesn’t just come from leading.

Strategies for managing up

Ready to get started managing up? You probably came to this post because you have recognised you need to ‘fix’ something. So focus on those issues first, but following the process laid out below will work whether you are fixing something or just starting to actively take control of your professional relationships. 

Start with identifying what the biggest issues you are facing (if any) in your relationships with those above you. This applies whether you have a good or a bad working relationship with your boss right now. So don’t skip this step!

  1. List out all of the key stakeholders ‘above you’ in the professional hierarchy you are in. You should be considering your relationships with your direct boss, but also in your line and sideways to key managers. If you have any desire to move sideways, develop new skills or see someone else as influential in the company then you want to add those relevant individuals to your stakeholder list.
  2. For each stakeholder, briefly describe the relationship you currently have with them including:
    1. Do you currently report to them directly or indirectly? If not, do they know who you are? 
    2. What do you think their current impression is of you? Be honest with yourself even if it is uncomfortable… this is between you and your pen, and honesty will serve you best here!
    3. Who do you think they have a good rapport with? Include yourself in this list if you are the one with the good rapport!
      1. Why do you think there is a good rapport? Is this something you see as a good thing? 
    4. What (if anything) could you do to build rapport in the same way?
      N.B. it is perfectly legitimate to not want to replicate someone else’ behaviour even if it appears to reap the dividends. You need to feel authentic in the way you turn up to work. Don’t start playing golf just because it might help your relationship…. There are other ways to build rapport. And certainly don’t become the office gossip because that works for someone else. Feel good about noticing positive behaviours that reap rewards. If you feel that some behaviour is wrong, notice it and acknowledge that you will not go there. Stay strong within your values of good and consistent behaviour.
      Rapport prompts:
      • What should you keep on doing?
      • What should you stop doing?

Now you have a list of the relationships and a list of what seems to be working for some people in those professional relationships, it’s now time to work on your communication. This is actually the single most important thing to do in your ‘managing up’ and can fix a lot of issues if you currently feel that your boss is holding you back. 

Most of us are cautious and under-share. There is an unfortunate misconception that sharing what we do at work can result in micro-management. But actually the opposite is true. Micro-management occurs when a manager is concerned about the lack of progress and ability. That may come from them (they don’t see how else to be sure you are making progress), but often comes about because we aren’t sharing our progress in the way they need. This is when actively managing up needs to really kick-in. You need to figure out HOW they need the information to feel in control.

There is also an expectation that if what you have done today is not important enough that you shouldn’t share it with your boss. This is also when impostor syndrome often kicks-in and stops us from sharing progress because it isn’t ‘good enough’ (check out this article on impostor syndrome if you need help here). If you’ve ever managed anyone else, you’ll know that zero updates are bad news. It makes a manager anxious. Even if your manager wants to be a great hands-off manager who trusts the team, they need to know progress is being made. Remember: your boss is responsible for your progress and they will have to pick up the pieces if you don’t deliver. Recognise this and give them updates even if they seem trivial.

Top tips for communicating upwards:

  1. Set and agree expectations with those you report to about sharing what you’ve done/completed/made progress on and what is coming up in your workload on a regular basis. If you work full-time a daily update as the last thing you do each day is  great way to sign-off and build trust with your boss.
  2. Share your wins and success stories. Tell them why it is important, particularly how it positively impacts the team (which includes them!) and the company. Own your successes: everyone else is!
  3. Share the wins of your colleagues as much as you share your own wins. This is great to demonstrate you are a team player, and can also help you feel good about sharing your own wins if you are sharing the wins of others’ as well.
  4. Share your goals for your career, what you want to do/become/achieve. Ideally, you and your boss should set clear career progression goals for the next quarter which feed into a one-year plan and possibly an even longer-term plan. This will help your boss see that you see a vision for yourself in this company and how you want to grow there.
    Remember your boss will be more inclined to help if you can clearly demonstrate how your career goals align with the objectives of the team and the organisation. Make this simple for your boss: own your own career objectives and keep them up-to-date. Link these objectives directly to your organization’s objectives and you are quickly going to be able to demonstrate your immediate and long-term value. Then be pro-active about revisiting these objectives in one-on-one meetings.
  5. Be specific about requests for support.
    Do you need a mentor, a budget for a coach, or some additional training? Even if you have an allocated professional development budget, know what you are asking for precisely, including quantifying the time and/or money and what this will bring the organization in the short/medium/long-term. If you know what you are requesting will be outside a budget line, be prepared to commit to meeting them halfway: ask for paid time off, or a contribution towards a fee. This reinforces your commitment to the organization as you are investing in your future with them too.

Ask for feedback and get comfortable with receiving constructive feedback.
Feedback is always good, even when it is bad. Even unreasonable feedback is useful as it tells you something about the relationship you have with an individual. But getting comfortable with, asking for, and receiving feedback, and not getting immediately defensive, will build your skills and trust with your boss. If you find yourself wanting to get defensive, step back, pause and ask yourself why. No one likes to be told we aren’t doing a great job, but remember, this is about growth and building relationships.

What to do when your boss is still being difficult

Sometimes, our boss is still the biggest barrier in our career. Maybe your boss is threatened in some way (yes there are far too many of those out there), or they just don’t see what you know you can bring to the organization. Here’s what to do next:

  • Network far and wide! You’ve hopefully already identified key stakeholders in your organization that you should be speaking to and working with by ‘managing-up’ there as well. If you shine to other people, those people will often help lift you up, particularly if your boss has a reputation for stifling those they manage. But you need to get in front of them.
  • Build your network outside your organization too. Networks really do build careers. They open your eyes to different ways of approaching problems, seeing solutions. Sometimes the best way to deal with a difficult boss is to have someone else compliment you to them! But they have to know you and value what you bring for them to be able to do that. 
  • Ask your network who else you should be talking to. Your network becomes a resource for furthering your network, your knowledge, your opportunities and your skills. And return the favour!

Is it time to move on?

Sometimes, if you are in a truly toxic environment the best thing to do is to move on. This is never an easy decision and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But if you’ve attempted to manage up and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, then it is quite likely that your opportunities are closed or closing in your current organization and possibly you will be manoeuvred out at some point anyway. 

Don’t jump too fast unless you have to. The best moves come from planning, building your network and taking a step upwards. But remember that moving on is always an option.

Conclusion

It’s important to remember that a ‘bad boss’ can often be managed into a better boss. And it isn’t always all on them. Bad bosses all too often come from bad relationship management, and that is partly on you. Yes, a great leader and a great boss would nurture you so that you knew your responsibilities in your professional relationship, but this is sadly missing a lot of the time. But you have more control than you might think.

If you are struggling with your boss, your work opportunities or levelling up your career and this has sparked a fire in you to be the leader you know you can be, then the Leading Women in Tech Emerging Leader Mastermind might just be the thing for you. If you have thought of leadership coaching but haven’t yet taken the leap, a Mastermind can be a great way to accelerate your career. And if you are considering coaching, or currently in a coaching relationship then a Mastermind can be the next leverage point you need!

The Leading Women in Tech Emerging Leader Mastermind kicks off on Wednesday, April 29th. If you would like to get involved, head on over to the application form, or hop on a no-stress, no-obligation Discovery Call with Toni to have a chat about whether the Mastermind is right for you. 

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