Jennifer Ford Reedy

Note from Jen: Managing up for leadership

July 9, 2019

Leadership is fundamentally about your effect on others. Which is why getting great at managing up (and out) is one of my very top suggestions for how to prepare yourself for future leadership roles.

In my experience most people are good at analyzing the effect others have on them. It takes a lot more intentional effort to understand what effect you are having on others and then to act in ways that make other people's jobs easier.

That's what managing up (and out) is.

In and of itself, managing up is one of the most important skills for career advancement. This is true at every stage of your career. Managing up well can get you noticed in your first job and managing up well is the key to success when you are the CEO reporting to a board.

And, at the same time, managing up is a free and easy way to practice the mindsets and skillsets you need for leading others.

Managing up well means continuously asking yourself:

  • What do I know that could be helpful to others? What do others know that could be helpful to me?
  • What could I do to be helpful to others? What could others do to be helpful to me?

It is seeing yourself as an important part of an organization, with the power to make the organization more effective by making it easier for other people to do their jobs well.

Every relationship between colleagues is different — complicated by different worldviews, backgrounds, power dynamics and working styles. Great working relationships require finding ways to be both assertive enough and responsive enough to make each other successful. Here are my six top tips for practicing managing up that have worked for me in a variety of contexts:

1. Frame your work.

Put topics in a larger context. Let your colleagues see how you are structuring your work. Show you are on it — on track and thinking ahead.

"For the event, I've been working on the logistics, agenda and participant list. Today I want to talk just about participant list and then I will bring the logistics and agenda to our next meeting."

2. Be clear about what you need.

Help your colleagues be helpful! Ask for what you want. Match the questions to the stage of your thinking/work.

"I'm not ready to act or make a decision, but I've been kicking around the idea of adding a new stage to the selection process. Do you have any initial reaction or thoughts for me to consider?"

3. Bring solutions.

Come with answers, not just questions. Lead with recommendations whenever possible — with other options if you are not sure. Show your work just enough to give confidence in your process/rationale.

"I think we should hire Rahul. I talked with everyone on the team and all but one felt like he was the strongest candidate and I think so, too. Do you have any concerns about that decision?"

4. Own the process and keep on moving.

Suggest and manage to deadlines. Don't voluntarily create any bottlenecks for yourself.

"I need feedback on this by Monday. Let me know if you can't get to it by then. If I don't hear from you, I'll assume it is okay and will move ahead."

5. Put things on paper.

Write up your ideas or plans or whatever else you need to get reviewed/okayed. Get it as concrete as possible as early as possible so you can identify disconnects.

"Here is a one paragraph description of the program idea and six criteria I think we would use to pick a partner. Is this consistent with what you were thinking?"

6. Don't take feedback as final (until it is).

Make sure direction is really direction, and not just a suggestion. Don't just go along if you think it is a bad idea. Reframe and come back.

"Last time we talked, you indicated a preference to partner with organization D. I've been reflecting and I'd like to talk about it again. I'm concerned about D's lack of experience in community engagement. May I share my thinking?"