Managing up: the beginner’s guide to becoming an all-star

There may be no better investment in your career then learning to manage your manager (managing up). Managing up is the process of positioning yourself to ensure your manager is happy with the results you are producing. It’s not something most people even think of when they are in the day-to-day of their career, but is crucially important.

How to build your reputation in a new role: Don’t make a big splash

The biggest mistake you can make is coming into an organization thinking you know better than everyone else, and therefore try to start changing processes and making criticisms immediately. It’s an absolutely devastating mistake to make, and many people don’t ever recover their reputation when they come in this way. Mainly because you come off as both arrogant and stupid.

It’s much wiser to just do the things you are asked for the first few months without pushing around the company/individuals too much. There a whole bunch of reasons why you need to be very careful in your first 3 months with what you do:

  1. Businesses are complicated, so getting the context to change systems in a business require a lot of context. The odds that you’re missing something while you’re trying to implement a new change are very high
  2. And building on point number 1, you’re building your reputation within this new organization. So early slip-ups on tasks/projects can really leave a stain on your reputation due to the lack of data points that your manager has on you

It’s infinitely more important that people know you’re reliable and can do what you’re told at the very start of your relationship with the company. Which is where you start to build the foundation for your reputation.

Under-promise and over-deliver

More specifically, this means giving yourself more than adequate resources and time when faced with new tasks. The main reason is that as you’re taking on new tasks, it is more difficult to assess the time they will make given there are so many things you won’t know to expect in your new role. So when you are assigned even basic tasks, do the following:

  1. Take the amount of time you think it will take to complete the task and double it’s estimated time before telling your manager. This allows you adequate time to deal with any unexpected setbacks and accomplish your tasks on time
  2. Ensure you know step-by-step what is required of you. And if you’re given open-ended tasks, then ensure that you have this process laid out to your manager before beginning
  3. Ensure you have all of the other resources you might need (money, access to designers, assets, the right documents, etc)

Tell the truth

Tell the truth during your interview process

Anything you state about what you can or cannot do during the interview process may be brought up in the future. So you need to make sure that either 1) you can do the task already or 2) you are 100% confident that you can learn how to do the task very quickly. It’s a huge detriment to your credibility if you lie about what you can do.

Being honest and vulnerable about what you are not good at (and how you will get around it) is a great way to build trust as well, because everyone has weaknesses. And it shows you’re comfortable with confronting unpleasant things about yourself.

If something really isn’t possible, tell your manager

The job of a good manager is to push their employees. But the inevitable problems that come with this is that managers often end up pushing people towards goals that are literally impossible to accomplish. And any direct report is thinking of themselves, and of course they don’t want to look bad. So often people will just promise that something can be done when it in fact can’t

You are allowed to say that something isn’t possible to your manager. It’s a very unpleasant conversation to have, but is much better than having a huge bomb dropped that you couldn’t do something the whole time. You’re just setting yourself up for failure otherwise.

Often tasks are in the grey on whether they are possible, so in these cases it’s important to set boundaries and have frequent discussions about what you need, what your constraints are, and how long projects will take.

Make sure there aren’t any surprises

In the context of work, everyone is desparate for predictability. Especially in smaller stage companies where change is constant, processes are breaking, people are getting fired or quitting, there is a constant desire to bring order to the chaos. So creating clear lines of predictability for your manager is a clear and relatively easy way for you to stand out.

Communicate all known risks frequently and how you will deal with them

Producing bad results is never good. But having poor results dropped without any prior knowledge is typically unnacceptable. It produces fear for any manager and inspires a lack of confidence in your abilities. But identifying and communicating risks well in advance of anything negative happening shows you are proactive in dealing with risk well in advance. And if you communicate what you are doing to deal with risks in a way that management is bought into, then if you fail the perception will be that you did what you could to mitigate any issues well in advance.

Here are some types of risk you can typically identify well in advance and communicate to your manager:

  1. Risk of employee(s) leaving
  2. Risk of employee(s) being fired
  3. Risk of important KPI’s not being met
  4. Execution risk on other departments that you depend on, which may impact your projects or KPI’s
  5. Execution risk on your end for building new processes
  6. Execution risk on your end for successfully completing projects

Frequently explain priorities, progress and also what is not being done

It’s important to in very clear terms describe what goals, projects, and operational tasks you are pursuing so that there are not surprises on what your team is working on. But even more important is explaining what you are not doing. Especially in the context of building a new team or new processes where not every functions with a team have been built, you need to justify why you are not working on certain things. Otherwise, your manager can at any point come down on you and get upset because you were maybe investing in the wrong resources, functions etc for your team. But they can’t do this if you’ve spelled out everything very clearly.

Provide context that can be passed up the chain of command to investors and the board

Part of the fear for managers (even c-suite executives) is they too always answer to someone. This chain of command always goes up to the board and investors. So if you can provide clarity about why something happened, how risk was assessed, and what you will be doing differently, you can make your manager look a lot better.

How to manage Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) with your manager

Balance expectations about short and long term results

Any manager, investor, board member only cares about results. So there’s often a bias towards frequently asking why results aren’t being produced in the short term.

So it’s your job to explain why short term results are being met or not being met. Using the justification that investment in the future is a reason why KPI’s are not being met can be a great way to buy you time (as long as you’re telling the truth). Giving your manager a rough forecast on when results will improve and why is a great way to give confidence you will get things done.

Place KPI’s in the context of the broader plan

It’s important to show how your KPI’s are relating to the broader plan you are pursuing, so management has an idea of progress. Usually you can have some leading indicators that show you are making progress against your plan, which will hopefully be satisfactory.

Example: You are a search engine optimization manager (someone who helps a business get ranked on Google and get traffic).

Search engine optimization (SEO) takes a long time to show results (typically 6-12 months). So your job as a manager is to first explain this timeline, but also show how you’re making progress. You can show the search terms you are starting to rank for over time using a tool like SEMRush to show month over month progress:

An example of showing search results (keywords) and where on Google the business is starting to rank. Note that results dropped in April of 2020, but started to pick up again in July.

Start with the “elephant in the room” then end on a good note

When it comes to bad results, there’s usually an “elephant in the room” where you need to justify why one or two key results didn’t happen. It’s really important to address these things upfront because:

  1. The “elephant in the room” is top of mind for everyone
  2. You don’t want to seem like you’re avoiding addressing poor results
  3. You can end on a positive note about your progress, which people may remember more than the start of the meeting

Be great to work with

If a manager is smart, they won’t just rely on their own judgement to decide whether you’re a great employee, because they’ll recognize the fallibility of just one perspective. So they’ll usually start asking trusted colleagues as well on what they think of you.

So it’s very important to be generous, kind, and easy to work with. All of these things greatly improve the odds that other people will have good things to say about you, which will influence the opinion of your manager.

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