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Great Boss, Good Boss, Bad Boss? Managing Up Is All About You

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Jayme Owen

Managing up is about you and your long-term success and advancement. Whether you are dealing with the CEO, a particularly active board member, organizational leaders or your direct supervisor, managing up is taking initiative and relying on strong communications that support your manager, which in turn builds your personal brand and professional reputation. It’s incredibly important to note that managing up is not “kissing up” or always seeing eye-to-eye, it’s about cultivating specific interpersonal skills that allow you to develop healthy working relationships, rooted in solid communications and mutual success.

Learning to effectively manage up requires two key elements: 1) know your manager’s management style, and 2) follow the golden rulesanticipate and be proactive.

Everyone has a managerial style, including you. Here are some common ones as noted by the Wall Street Journal and Fast Company:

  • Directive/Commanding – immediate compliance; “do as I say”
  • Authoritative/Visionary – providing long-term direction and vision; “firm but fair”
  • Affiliative – creating harmony; “people first, work second”
  • Participative/Democratic – building commitment and consensus; “want input from all”
  • Pacesetting – high productivity with a high standard; “I’ll do it myself if needed”
  • Coaching – long-term professional development; “how can we develop that, what’s your goal”

Can you recognize your style and your manager’s? It’s likely a combination of styles or perhaps situational, for example, more directive under pressure or pacesetting when on deadline. Understanding style patterns helps you execute the golden rules of managing up – anticipating needs and providing proactive solutions. Look for opportunities to take something off your manager’s plate. Take personal ownership of regular and reoccurring activities for which you know your boss could use help and offer to take the lead.

Other important tips to consider:

Look before you leap. You see something that needs to be done and you do it to be proactive, right? Not always. The best approach is to outline and confirm the need, verify your information is current with your manager and then take the action to get it done. Pausing to confirm allows your manager to guide the process, as they may have privileged information not yet broadly shared that could impact the work you will do. After consulting your manager, follow-up with a recap of how you will proceed, the approximate timeline and what else you will need from them in order to accomplish the task. By getting manager buy-in, you really are following the golden rules – you’re anticipating the need and being proactive. Managers are ultimately accountable for the work you’re doing – so it’s important that they are kept informed throughout the process.

It’s not what you ask but how! Questions can be asked in many different ways, each resulting in a different reaction, feeling or opinion. Consider the following example:

  • Do you need me to do draft that proposal?
  • I know we need to work on this proposal, but want to confirm with you before I begin, this is still an action item, do I have all of the current information or has anything changed?

Positioning your question correctly can make all the difference in how it is perceived. The first example lacks vision and confidence. The second approach allows you to take initiative and ownership, while still seeking guidance (confirming!) from a manager – this type of questioning sets you up for greater success. And lastly, I am not saying this as a communications professional…but, communication is key! When you do this well, you’re seen as: proactive, accountable, reliable, smart and confident – all attributes that successful leaders and managers exhibit.

Deliver what you say you will.  We all live by some type of deadline. When managing up, setting and meeting deadlines are critical to maintaining your personal accountability, reliability and reputation. If you set a deadline, make sure you meet it. In those situations where there are unexpected delays—someone working on a project is out or not getting back to you in time—leaders will understand, but they will also expect regular updates and to be kept informed regarding anticipated delays. Let your manager know as early as possible if you will not meet a deadline as it could affect a bigger deadline they are working against as well. Understand and set priorities with the leaders you are working with. If you’re overwhelmed with competing deadlines or feel like a project is not getting the attention it needs, prioritize your work by asking your manager for input. There could be a fellow team member who has time to help. I always say, there is a way to get it all done; we just need to find it together.

Take your ego out of the equation. Humility is the opposite of ego. It’s so important to remember that it’s not all about me or you—it’s about the approach. Maybe you’re coming up with an idea, plan, resolution, etc.—be and remain open-minded and ask for input from others, your manager included. Take a risk, offer something for them to react to, but be ready for their feedback and for them to provide constructive criticism. Collaboration is often the best approach, which means allowing others to be critical of your work and ideas. Also, don’t take feedback on your thoughts or ideas personally—they are not an attack on you, receive them with the mindset that you want to strive for the best. So, stay open-minded to the feedback required to reach it!

Everyone is managing up, including the leaders throughout every level of your organization, so consider what you can do to help them—and what information they need along the way.

Cliché as is sounds, you own your professional destiny, but set realistic expectations. Don’t always play it safe. Take measured and informed risks, find opportunities to show you’re willing to be accountable, find ownership and pride in everything you do. As a manager, and having worked under incredible leaders, I can say that managers would rather slow down a high performer than push someone along—so put yourself out there, manage up and on to new roles, responsibilities and promotions!


Jayme Owen is a senior vice president at FleishmanHillard International Communications, a global integrated communications agency. Jayme started her career with the company 10 years ago and her work focuses on integrated communications solutions with a specific focus in strategic media relations for nonprofit and for-profit clients. Her nonprofit clients include the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, Raleigh’s Artsplosure and Rise Against Hunger. Jayme can be reached at jayme.owen@fleishman.com.   

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