3 Rules for Managing Up

Managing Up

If you were up for a promotion, whose advocacy will carry more weight, your boss’s or a subordinate’s? Is it more important to your career advancement that those above you, or those below you, appreciate your performance? I don’t think it is controversial to assert that it’s those above you. Yet so much of management training targets the downstream skills.  No one tells you how to manage superiors. I’m here to help with that. Who knew?

Reasonable folks could argue I’m not the best for this topic. I self-identify as a mediocre performer when it comes to managing up. Whether wisdom or folly, I’ve come to believe I was really talented at managing down, my immediate team. I’d tell my team I wanted to be the best boss they’d ever have. I wanted them to develop skills that decades later would hold them in good stead. I encouraged a great attitude, a wonderful work ethic and an enrollment in the 401k. I hoped people could feel my investment in their future. I’d share information, suggest ways to improve skill sets, and trust them.  If I did not convince them, I sure did convince myself.

Can I get an amen?

Yet of course none of them were in a position to trampoline me onto greater responsibilities. One needs to manage up to effect that outcome.

Rule 1 is to recognize the proper language and use it. Whether written or verbal communication from above, listen closely for buzzwords as a window into priorities. Remember the buzzwords. Remember the priorities.

Be an intense listener.

Use those words in your responses- everyone loves that validation of having been heard. Don’t get cute and use synonyms for the buzzwords. Use the buzzwords.

Listen lots.

Once you’ve listened lots, then and only then might you feel comfortable making a suggestion. And when you make that suggestion, you fold in these buddies of ours, the buzzwords.

And somehow, someway, you ensure your suggestion is linked to the priorities.

You can do it.

There is a link, just roll that link right in. Everything you do is for those blessed priorities. That’s how you manage up.

Rule 2 is to understand the concept of loyal opposition and recognize when it is safe to deploy. If your boss is smarter than God, you sometimes trash loyal opposition and move right to Champion the Cause.

So, what is Loyal Opposition? It is the freedom to tell your boss a better way, because the boss knows you share the same ultimate goals for the enterprise. Loyal means you both want the same thing. The opposition ties to your seeing a different path. But you can only provide the loyal opposition if your boss is open to it. I believe remote bosses are less likely to be open. Shame.

Championing the Cause is the concept of heeding the guidance of your boss, even when you disagree. Disagreement is not a mandate to lessen your effort. You try just as hard when you Champion the Cause. Don’t be looking to deliver the ‘I TOLD YOU SO” moment. But how sweet it is if you try your hardest and circumstances unfold whereby you are proven wise and the boss says “Hey, maybe you were right.”

So much better than “I told you so”.

I had a boss for years who was quasi-legendary in his personal power. I don’t mean name badge-oriented position power. I mean personal power. Owned the room. Made folks wilt. Super smart and a feral work ethic. Polished look and penetrating questions.

I dig cats like that; gets my competitive fire going. While I disagreed with him on fundamental methods of managing, I could say anything to him and he appreciated it. Gave me an article by Walter Lippman titled The Indispensable Opposition because he wanted me to to keep pushing him.

His management style wash to push people, I wanted to pull. He was stick; I was carrot. He LOVED to criticize in public albeit his method was graceful. He had these balanced scorecards posted on everything. Every little thing he could measure, he would. And he’d rank people and departments unceasingly.

I’d tell him that if you have a hundred priorities, you don’t have any. He’d take off his glasses, wipe them thoughtfully, maybe tell me to keep being idealistic, and move on. More balanced scorecards on the way.

In the interest of fairness, I should mention this guy got huge results from his teams and those public red zone notifications did seem to goose some colleagues. Others didn’t seem to care. But he reinforced to me the usefulness of loyal opposition and championing the cause.  I could champion the cause, because he had the grace to listen.

Rule 3 is to understand when your boss is a Prisoner of the Moment. This refers to making inferences based on limited immediate data.

  • Sales this month are down 10%
  • Labor is 50% higher than same time last year
  • Margins eroded 45 basis points
  • John was late 6 times last quarter

So often one anomaly addresses the delta. June always outpaces May; we did not serve breakfast last year and so were open less hours; we incurred a one time workers comp expense……..you get the point.

But those are the easy ones- the ones everyone catches quickly. When you can be the one who brings a different statistical angle against the boss’s priorities, you can manage up from there. Statistics can illuminate, but they can obscure just as effectively. Look for trends, accounts with a particular trajectory over 3 or 5 measurement periods; comparisons with other like departments or companies or stores or associations. If your membership is declining, but at a slower rate than comparables, it changes the emotion. If all the restaurants on your cloverleaf are all suffering declining covers, then shaving labor does not fix the problem. It just ignores it.

To be blunt, I am asserting that bosses can major in the minors for too long if not gently nudged. Learning how to, figuratively speaking, tap the boss’s elbow to redirect is a refined skill, but it never gets refined if not considered. If you are not thinking about managing up, I’ll guess you are not maximizing your opportunities.

I’ll close by again saying a mea culpa, in that I really was not the best at this in corporate America. I’d hoot at a corporate suit when confirmation bias would justify every dang thing he did. I don’t think I was as respectful of titles as common sense would dictate to many. So there is a bit of “do as I say, not as I do” element to this content. Yet I strongly believe that if you consider these three rules I’ve outlined, you can enhance your career progression.

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