Management isn’t for everyone, but everyone must manage their management. Doing so is called “managing up,” and it’s a skill that’s central to your success and wellbeing. However, how to do it well is shrouded in mystery.
Before I lift the shroud, some reminders of why managing up is essential. Your management determines your rewards and promotions, so ensuring your managers advocate for you is crucial. This influence is amplified if you yourself are a manager because your management must advocate for your entire team. Day to day, your management can enhance or suppress your influence and reputation, provide or withhold protection for mistakes and risks, support or deny escalations, approve or reject resource requests, and endorse or inhibit your freedom to work as you choose. With that much at stake, managing your management is paramount to doing and being your best.
Ivan the Idealist says, “Isn’t it a manager’s job to support my career, reputation, missteps, escalations, requests, and freedom?” Really, Ivan? Are you going to leave that to chance? After all, managers are human. Paula the Proud says, “I shouldn’t have to feed my manager’s ego, be their false friend, or change who I am just to ensure I’m treated fairly and respectfully.” You’re right, Paula. But you can be authentic and still manage your management. Let’s discuss how that’s done.
I’ve gotta be me
While engineering leads often contribute directly to products, they can’t do it alone. That’s why they have people reporting to them. Group managers, directors, and vice presidents contribute less directly, relying on their staffs to deliver value to customers. As a result, management must provide what its staff needs in order to deliver for customers and partners. However, managers aren’t mind readers, and they often have different information, priorities, desires, and concerns than their staffs. It’s your job to bridge the gap and ensure your manager (and sometimes other layers of management) know what you need to succeed.
Unfortunately, to bridge the gap between you and your managers, it’s not sufficient to simply tell them what you need. There are business constraints and limited resources. To get what you need, you must state your needs (problem and solution), provide supporting facts and data, and align your needs with the needs of your management. In other words, you must frame your requests in a way that resonates with your management and adapt your approach to your management’s style, priorities, and interests.
When people think about managing up, their minds often picture charlatans who agree with everything management says, compliment managers’ abilities and styles, and sickeningly ingratiate themselves in hopes of better treatment. This “brown-nosing” is despicable and repulsive.
Fortunately, you can adapt to your management’s style, needs, and interests without browning your nose. Consider how you adapt every day to other people you care about while still being true to yourself. You engage differently with children than you do with adults. You engage differently with family members than you do with co-workers. In each case, you know these people well and can adjust what you say and how you say it to best match their knowledge, interests, and desires. Talking to management is no different. You just need to know your management well enough to meet them where they are as your authentic self.
Getting to know you
You may not get to spend much time with your manager, let alone your director or vice president. How do you learn about their style, needs, and interests? Observe them.
Managers have lots of meetings. Directors and vice presidents often record their meetings. Watch the recordings (at 1.5x speed if you like). Pay attention during the meetings (you’re there anyway). What is the manager’s style, and why? What are their needs, and why? What are their interests, and why?
If you get a chance, ask questions with genuine curiosity and desire to learn more about your management’s preferences, perspectives, and principles. You’re not trying to impress. You’re trying to know your management well enough to present your needs and ideas in ways that align with their needs, priorities, and philosophy. Now you can meet managers where they are. Now you can give them what they need while getting what you need in return.
For more about getting personal time with your management, read Life isn’t fair—The review curve. For more about engaging your new management after a reorg, read How I learned to stop worrying and love reorgs.
Say the words I want to hear
Once you know what your management cares about and prioritizes. It’s time to get what you need by giving your managers what they need. You must frame your responses and requests in a way that resonates with management. Let’s cover some examples.
- When writing self-assessments (Connects) and promotion justifications, don’t write about all the work completed and why you thought it was cool. Instead, write about what your management would think was cool about the work. Did you meet management’s needs? Did you address their priorities? If so, focus on impact instead of activity. Management loves impact aligned to their goals.
- When responding to any management request, the answer is always “Yes.” Naturally, you don’t have time to do everything requested each day, but you say yes anyway. You’re committing to managing the request, not necessarily to doing it yourself or doing it instantly. Your management just needs the request covered. For example, say, “Yes, I’ll ensure that gets done. Tell me more so I can assign the right person.” “Yes, we’ll cover that meeting. I can’t attend, but I’ll ensure we’re represented.” “Yes, we’ll hit that commitment. I’ll talk to stakeholders about what’s needed and when.”
- When communicating up and down the management chain, be transparent while setting appropriate expectations. While the basic facts are the same for everyone, the expectations can vary depending on the audience. For example, if an important deliverable is delayed, you inform your teammates, partners, and management of the delay, but set different expectations. You tell your teammates to stay focused on completing the work while you deal with partners and management. You work with your partners to adjust their schedules. And you tell your management that you’re handling the stakeholders and keeping your team focused. Everyone has what they need to deal appropriately with the change. Note: Never let your manager be surprised. News regarding you and your team should always come from you first.
- When planning work beyond what you have time and resources to fulfill, don’t communicate cut lines or threaten inaction on priorities you can’t complete. Threats and cut lines may be cathartic for you by expressing your frustration, but they are abrasive and argumentative to management (and partners). Instead, communicate tradeoffs and opportunities. “Here’s our draft plan, which doesn’t include everything you want. Let’s work together to have it better reflect our shared interests.” Tradeoffs may include additional time or resources from a variety of places. You’re not begging or threatening—you’re collaborating and cooperating.
- For work you are planning to complete, differentiate between work that is committed within a timeframe and work that is best-effort. Commitments should be certain and few—everything else is best effort. Your management cares more about being reliable (avoiding embarrassment) than it does about impressive-seeming plans. In the end, managers will appreciate everything you accomplish, regardless of what was originally committed versus what was best-effort.
- When you complete work or have a significant breakthrough, don’t share the activity (“We finished features x, y, and z”)—share the accomplishment and impact (“We increased engagement by 20% with our latest release”). Activities are boring and procedural. Activity reports are for status updates, such as sprint reviews or executive checkpoints. Accomplishments and impact are impressive and exciting. Managers love to brag about accomplishments and impact to their managers and send kudos to their staff.
In every case, consider your situation from your management’s perspective. What’s the impact for them? What do they care about? Do they know enough to make a good decision? Then target your communication to meet their needs as well as yours.
Management is an easy target for anxiety, angst, and annoyance. However, managers are folks just like you, trying to do their best for themselves and the things they care about. You can help them help you by understanding their point of view and working well together.
Get to know your managers’ styles, needs, interests, preferences, perspectives, and principles by observing them in meetings and being genuinely curious about their viewpoints. When stating your needs to management, provide supporting facts and data that are aligned with what your managers care about. Frame your communication in a way that resonates with your management, including talking about accomplishments and impact instead of activity, saying “yes” to requests even if you end up assigning them to others, setting expectations appropriately for each audience, never letting your manager be surprised, talking about tradeoffs and opportunities instead of cut lines, and differentiating between a few solid commitments and your best effort on the rest.
You dislike people blathering on about stuff you don’t care about, and so does your management. Understand your management as people and focus your attention and communications on what you both care about. Help them be successful by helping you be successful. You may not always love your management, but they’re in a great position to enhance your efforts, so manage them well.
Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.