Advice for Managing Up at Work from Experienced Leaders

How do I look good to my boss? How do I stay on the same page as them?

What do I do to avoid unwanted surprises with my manager? What are the best approaches to managing up well?

These are common questions mid level leaders and individual contributors alike ask themselves when they start working on a new team.

Unfortunately, despite this being a common challenge, there’s not a lot written about the subject of managing up. Since our mission is to help people be more successful at work and on their teams, we’re here to help.

managing up is a key skill to succeed

Expert Advice for Managing Up at Work

We asked a number of leaders in the Lighthouse network for their advice on managing up, and below is some of the best advice we heard.

Special thanks to Mark C. Crowley, Beth Armknecht Miller, and Oren Ellenbogen for their contributions. They come from variety of backgrounds as leaders experienced in tech, finance, and professional services around the world.

How to start on the right foot managing up

The best way to avoid problems with your manager is to not create them in the first place. When you can’t do that, the next best thing is to fix problems when they’re small.

mark c crowley knows the keys to managing up

Mark C Crowley, a leadership speaker, consultant, and author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century, was a caring leader in the typically ruthless finance industry. Here’s what he told his team when they started:

“It really serves no good purpose to keep people in the dark when it comes to knowing how to successfully manage up to your boss. So I’m intentionally an open book.

People who’ve ever worked for me know that I’m happiest when the communication I receive is direct & concise, but also anticipates the kinds of questions I’m likely to ask.

While I want my direct reports to solve problems, I also don’t like surprises. So I’m very pleased when someone lets me know trouble may be brewing even when they think they have it under control. That advance notice gives me extra time to ponder solutions should I later need to be involved.”

Whether by email, call, or 1 on 1, direct communication was the best way for Mark’s teams to manage up to him.

While many managers may appreciate that, not everyone has the same communication style.

Walk a mile in your manager’s shoes

beth miller advice on managing up

Beth Armknecht Miller, a leadership coach and Vistage Chair based in Atlanta, Georgia, has some great tips for thinking about your manager’s communication and management style:

“Over the years, I have had the opportunity to coach many rising stars on their relationship with their manager, which is often the most critical to their success in an organization. 

Here’s what I tell them:

1) Know your boss’s priorities and goals. When you know his/her priorities, you can tailor the information you share during meetings and conversations with them. And when you are able to assist your manager in accomplishing his/her goals, you are demonstrating you are dependable and take initiative, two highly coveted traits managers look for in their employees.
2) Anticipate the needs of your manager. The more you anticipate the needs and demonstrate your understanding of them, the more confidence and influence you will build with your manager.
3) Talk like your manager. Use the language and terms that he or she often uses and focus on the topics that are most important to him/her.”

And how do you get to know their priorities, needs, and language they use? By spending time with them.

Work to get time on their calendar and communicate regularly with them to build rapport and empathy for them.

However, walking in your manager’s shoes is just one part of successfully managing up. It’s also important that you get what you need.

How to manage up to get the support you need

oren ellenbogen helps his managers managing up to him

Oren Ellenbogen, VP Engineering at Israeli startup Forter, and maker & curator of SoftwareLeadWeekly, has some great advice he gives every manager that reports to him:

“The other side of “Managing Up” is to bring me closer to their day to day challenges, and share the risks and opportunities as they see them. Without this information, I cannot apply my technical intuition when judging risk, show empathy, nor protect the team when needed.

Some of the questions I like to ask are:

  • What are the biggest risks you see on your team, and how do you currently mitigate them? 
  • Who’s doing brilliant work? Are they aware of it?
  • Who’s struggling? What are you doing to help them?

This is a great way for them to bring relevant bottom → up context that I’m likely lacking.

We usually talk about it in-depth during our 1:1, and my homework as their manager is to think of ways to help them increase their leadership capacity.”

Even if your manager doesn’t ask you these questions, you can ask yourself them. Then, present the answers to your boss in your 1 on 1 for feedback.

Need help convincing your boss to start 1 on 1s with you, this post can help you make the case.

managing up isn't always easy as dilbert knows

Managing up when you have a difficult relationship with your boss.

Unfortunately, not all managers are great. As we’ve covered many times on the Lighthouse blog, the statistics show the majority of us have bad bosses.

So while starting on the right foot, and communicating openly can work when you have a great boss, you need different approaches if you have a difficult one.

Because of this challenge, we also asked our experts what to do in this situation, too.

mark c crowley knows how to manage up

Mark C Crowley encourages you to put on your detective hat:

“Unfortunately, not all bosses are as forthcoming as how I’ve chosen to be, and that just means that you, as their employee, are on the hook for figuring out what behaviors please and displease them. If you want to receive good performance reviews, good raises and opportunities to grow in your career, mastering the “managing up” process is essential.

My best advice is to do some sleuthing. Ask your colleagues to individually share examples of things they’ve done to successfully meet your boss’s needs in the past. You’ll quickly see there are many common denominators – and these practices are the ones you’ll want to consistently provide.

When you feel like you have solid footing with your boss, you can and should ask them directly: “What are some things I could do better or differently to help you succeed even more?”

Avoid the most common pitfalls of managing up

beth miller advice on managing up

Meanwhile, Beth Miller gives you some tips for avoiding the pitfalls that can further damage a difficult relationship with your manager:

“Don’t bring any surprises to your manager. No manager likes surprises, especially the negative ones. Keep your manager updated with current news that is significant to his or her success.

Understand your manager’s strengths and weaknesses. Why is this so important? Because you want to be able to close the gap of his/her weaknesses, and leverage and learn from his/her strengths. It will also help you to anticipate how he/she will act in certain situations. For instance, if they are highly goal driven and you bring him a roadblock to accomplishing a goal, he will want to know when and how you will get around it.

Offer solutions. Managers don’t want to hear all the problems you have. Rather, they want to hear the various solutions you can offer to a problem. Notice that I recommend “various solutions.” It is important that you have your own opinion on which one would be the best alternative. This demonstrates that you have carefully thought through the situation, and didn’t jump to your first idea.

Whatever the challenge you are having with your boss, make sure you keep communications open. If they are a true leader they will appreciate you making the effort to reinforce and strengthen your relationship.”

Ask them the right questions

oren ellenbogen helps his managers managing up to him

Finally, Oren Ellenbogen reminds us that how you approach managing up can make all the difference:

“I’d focus a good portion of my time around alignment with their concerns. And since often issues managing up stem from a lack of time available with your boss, I’d work to reduce the time I need to share my concerns.

To accomplish this, ask them questions such as:

  • Where do you spend most of your time these days?
  • What are you trying to achieve there?
  • Is there a way you’re trying to measure progress or success? (If so – Why did you pick these metrics?)

You won’t be able to bring them closer to your challenges, but it would feel to them that your grasp of reality is similar to theirs, and you’re “focused on the right things.”

Most importantly, keep it in writing. It can be extremely useful in situations where they have limited time, as they can always read it and respond offline, in an asynchronous manner.

“Managing Up” here would mostly allow you the space you need in order to promote your ideas and vision as you’ll be able to speak in their language.”

Conclusion:

Managing up is never easy. However, as we learned from our expert leaders today, if you communicate openly, ask the right questions, and think from the perspective of your manager, you’re bound to have more success.

And if you want to be the manager that creates the fewest concerns for your boss, then being a great manager yourself is one of the best ways to do so. Lighthouse is purpose built to help you be a great manager who motivates and gets the most from their teams.

Start your free trial to help you be a great manager here. 

What advice do you have for others managing up?