Stop Sucking Up and Learn to Manage Up for Success

You’ve put in the time and you know you’re performing well. So why are you still on the same boring projects and passed up for promotion after promotion?

When you start your career, you can get by and keep advancing by just doing your job. You don’t have to think much beyond doing the work in front of you well. But to advance to the next level, you need to start thinking like the next level up and show that you are to your boss.

How do you do that? A phrase we use often, but rarely take the time to dissect:

You have to manage up.

I’m at the top. Do I really need to manage up?

I work with professionals at a variety of levels and they all have one thing in common – they are reporting to someone in some capacity. No matter where you are in your career, you have to manage up to someone.

Consider who hired you, who holds you accountable, and keeps you motivated when you’d rather be looking at your Facebook feed all day. That’s who you need to manage up to.

Whether you’re a CEO reporting to a board, a board member accountable to shareholders, an entrepreneur aiming to please your customer, or an employee with a traditional manager, you report to someone. If you think you don’t have a boss, you’re wrong, and understanding who your boss is is the first key to managing up for success.

At the end of the day, if you can keep your boss happy, you will always have work, so it’s imperative to identify and understand who that is.

OK, so how do I do it?

Once you know who to manage up to, the task itself becomes easier. There are three key factors to managing up well:

1 – Shift Your Perspective

It’s easy to get bogged down in the day to day necessities to keep the work in front of you moving. We all have a lot to do and, without enough forethought, our days can be consumed with checking emails and putting out fires.

To manage up well (and be strategic with your career, in general), you have to be willing to take a step back from everything you have to do and understand your higher up’s agenda. If you’re mired in the details of your work, it’s too easy to miss how your work fits into the big picture and prove yourself as worthy of advancement.

What matters to your bosses now must matter to you if you intend to manage up well and get promoted. Every interaction you have with them should show them you’ve considered their pressures and priorities and support them as a partner.

2 – Adapt Your Communication

It’s great to anticipate your boss’s needs, but to truly manage up well, you must communicate effectively.

You need to be comfortable adapting your preferred communication methods to your boss’s. Whether it’s your boss or a new client, ask them upfront what method they prefer to communicate and set standards for consistent communication.

In one of my corporate roles, I had weekly half-hour one-on-ones with my boss. When I first started, I thought the frequency was excessive and a bit big-brotherish. What I learned shortly was that it was much more of a benefit for me. The forced weekly interaction with my boss helped me understand his priorities and stressors and also gave him the confidence that I was moving the ball on what mattered to him.

Those one-on-ones also helped me develop a stronger relationship with him so I felt I could speak my mind, when appropriate. Knowing when to disagree and how is imperative in managing up well.

When you think your boss is wrong about something, speak up, but do so in a private and respectful way. Help them understand the information you have that they may not and why that leads you to disagree. Then be open to the same – what information do they have that you don’t?

Having open and honest conversations will help you understand what it might be like to be in your boss’s shoes (and whether advancement is what you want).  You’ll also develop your relationship with them as a trusted confidant so they want to invest in you and promote you when appropriate.  

3 – Seek Feedback

Finally, seek open and honest feedback. Everyone wants more feedback, but few know how to ask for it well. If you’ve adapted your responsibilities to include the bigger picture and are communicating well, eliciting feedback will be easier.

Because most people don’t like giving negative feedback, try to ask specific questions about your actions to get feedback that will serve you well:

  • What did you think when I did X on that last project?
  • What would you have liked to see go differently?
  • Was that email I sent what we needed for the circumstance?

There is a fine line between seeking constructive feedback and requiring too much hand-holding. Try not to ask for feedback on every part of your job – just those that are the most important to your advancement.

And, of course, your response to the feedback will say a lot about your potential, so incorporate it when appropriate in future work. If you don’t understand the feedback, ask for clarification. When you disagree, explain why you performed your way without being defensive and try to get to the root of the difference in your approach.

Managing Up vs. Sucking Up

If all of this feels like you’re just sucking up, you’re doing it wrong. Although you do need to shed your ego a bit and be ok with some subtle sucking up, managing up is richer than that. Managing up shows your boss that you’re thoughtful with your career, understand the bigger picture, and are adaptable enough to work in a number of ways and have the potential to keep growing.

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