Why ‘Managing Up’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Sucking Up’

For many, the term ‘managing up’ will conjure up images of greasy pole-climbers and upwardly mobile politico types. You probably don’t want to think of yourself in that way and you’ll shy away from taking action in this space – but that would be a mistake, says Rebecca Houghton.

Whilst there are a million books on how to be a great boss (aka how to manage others) there are, unfortunately, relatively few on how to be a great direct report (or how to manage up). So, let me help you…

Managing up offers benefits for every EA, from enhancing your day-to-day performance, removing roadblocks for your team, and improving your influence to increasing your perceived value and, eventually, your seniority.

Let’s start with mastering three ‘managing up’ moments – the elevator pitch, the executive briefing and one-to-ones.

The elevator pitch

Being alone with the CEO who asks: “How’s it going?” is something of a nightmare for many. But it needn’t be – if you manage up, and keep it simple but powerful. No CEO wants the long-winded version in a twenty second elevator ride and if they’re interested, they’ll ask more.

So, respond with one of the following:

  • Something you’ve done – Your biggest recent achievement based on business impact.
  • Something you’re doing – Your current problem that is high level enough to be on their radar.
  • Something on the to do list – What’s next on the horizon for you?

The executive brief

As a seasoned EA, you’ll know that getting it right with busy execs, especially those who don’t know you well, needs structure. So, use ‘managing up’ tactics to avoid looking unplanned, uncertain and unclear.

  • Purpose – What is the conversation for? To inform? Sign off? Consult?
  • Product – What outcome do you want? Don’t make them guess.
  • People – Who is involved? Tell them so they can determine the influencing landscape.
  • Process – What commitment should they plan for? Is this a short or long conversation? A one-off meeting? Or will this brief lead to a repeat commitment, such as a board or committee?
  • Preparation – What might your exec need to prepare ahead of this conversation so you both get the most out of your time together?

One-to-ones

Your relationship with your direct boss is crucial to you – and your team if you have one. Nurture it with a firm ‘managing up’ mindset.

Think:

  1. “I need this – My relationship with my boss relationship is key to my success as an EA.”
  2. “This relationship is two-way. We both need something from each other, and we both contribute strengths and weaknesses to the mix.”
  3. “They have a lot on their mind and a lot of competition for their time. I need to get smart about how I use my slice of it.”

The next step is balancing your relationship with your leader, ensuring both parties get what they need.

Target this by approaching your regular catch ups with the following in mind:

  • Ask for their help, specifically if you are struggling to influence quickly or something is outwith your control.
  • Tell them what they need to know. Contrary to most inner voices, flagging risks (and mitigants) early and often does not make you look bad. It actually makes you look good. A nasty surprise, on the other hand, is hard to forgive – especially if it makes them look bad.
  • Ask what they need. It benefits both of you and will reflect well on your team too.

So, there you have it. Managing up does not have to mean sucking up.

The key reason many of us avoid it is because we think it’s self-serving when, in fact, it is in service of your team, your peers, and your company. Your ability to leverage your leaders as an asset will massively lift your organisational impact, which is better for everyone.