How to Manage Up

One area I work on with engineers and new managers is how to "manage up". Before we dig into managing up, it's worth covering "managing down" as this will help us compare and contrast these two functions.

Managing down is traditionally what we think of when we describe managing a team, looking down the chain of command at everyone you're responsible for. Managing down includes:

  • giving proper context when delegating work
  • providing ownership and opportunities to grow
  • acknowledging high quality work
  • providing critical feedback on sub-par work
  • inspiring and motivating your team
  • removing ambiguity and roadblocks
  • investing in the individual growth of your team members
  • respecting personal commitments

Managing up on the other hand focuses how you interface with your leadership and includes the following:

  • providing consistent, concise, and accurate updates to your leadership
  • avoiding surprises by calling out risks and concerns early and often
  • seeking regular feedback on you and your teams' performance
  • asking poignant questions of your leadership that drive towards clarity
  • assuming full ownership of your responsibilities
  • coming prepared with solutions as you discover new problems, engineering or otherwise
  • respecting your manager's seniority

So how does one get better at managing up? By anticipating the needs of your leadership and tailoring the above actions to their management style. Some managers like highly detailed status updates while others like to keep things high level. Some like to be included in all key decision meetings and others only need to be informed. Pay close attention to where they focus their questions and time and don't be afraid to push them for clarification when you miss the mark. Your goals should be to avoid surprises, reduce anxiety, and improve confidence in and around your projects.

Let's run through some examples...

If your manager has a monthly status meeting with the executive team, he or she will need an update for each of your projects. Proactively provide this to your manager with enough advance that he or she can ask clarifying questions. This demonstrates to your manager that you're going to provide them with high quality briefs in a timely manner. You've helped improve trust and confidence in your leadership.

If you've run into a major blocker on one of your projects, make sure you've talked to several parties and explored ways to unblock your team before escalating to your manager. Anticipate creative solutions your manager may suggest and try to explore them in advance so you can speak with authority why those options may or may not work. By doing this work in advance, it demonstrates that you don't need supervision, you can find solutions without his or her intervention, and you can be trusted with highly critical work.

If there is a project that is a critical dependency for a big initiative, make sure you spend extra time ensuring the project goes smoothly. Talk with your manager about how you've mitigated various risks. Staff the project with your best people and provide regular updates to your management. Put together a tracking sheet that provides an at-a-glance view of project progress and share it proactively with your leadership. These actions demonstrate that you understand the criticality of, and can be trusted with, highly important projects.

If any of the items discussed above feel unnatural, engage in a dialogue with your manager! Don't be afraid to ask: "I'm not sure what kind of fidelity you'd like for our status updates, can you provide an example?", or "where do you perceive the biggest risks to be on this project; I'll do my best to make sure we address those risks."

Managing up is a straightforward strategy for improving your leadership that is often overlooked. If you can master the craft of tailoring your communication and expectation-setting to fit the needs of your managers/bosses, you will unlock a super power that will net you bigger projects, more responsibility, and a fast growing career.

If you are looking for more in-depth guidance on how to manage up, I offer paid coaching for a limited number of people. More information can be found on my Coaching page.