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By: Nadine Powrie

As a Leadership and Executive Coach, working with leaders who lead change, overseeing a period of transition, transformation and limiting beliefs and sets of behaviours, I find ‘managing up’ has become a key topic in many coaching conversations. This is not a surprise as many organisations have had to make adjustments in their senior leadership team’s composition. Their middle leaders may well have a new line manager, and many leaders may have a new CEO.

Imagine being a middle leader with a new and experienced line manager who happens to be a micro-manager continually asking questions, having an opinion on everything you do, interfering in what you do daily and how you lead, high jacking your meetings with your teams, giving you feedback where you’ve no idea about the ‘why’ of this particular comment, for example ‘you need to be closer to your teams’. What would he/she know? And what exactly does that mean?

The thing is, this relationship needs to work. It needs to work for several reasons: You’re ambitious and want to continue to do well. You want that next promotion. You want to continue to lead by example and to make things happen, to lead change and to transform. 

The best leaders run organisations effectively because they can strategise, prioritise, build relationships, influence others, and most importantly, make things happen.

What is ‘managing up’?

‘Managing up’ refers to the process of intentionally working with your line manager to obtain the best possible results for you, your line manager and your organisation. When you manage up, you become a ‘Rising Leader’.

Managing up can be challenging, mainly when you are already very busy working downwards and sideways. Look at the positive side as there are different reasons why this might be a great way forward for you. It is an opportunity to develop your leadership presence so that you become more successful, not just downwards and sideways but also up. It’s in a way, a way to influence and to pre-sell your big ideas.

Managing up successfully is about understanding what your line manager does, how they think, how they work. It’s about their leadership style and personality, daily habits, goals, how they communicate and how others communicate effectively.

You know that you are successful when you can anticipate their needs and predict their reaction, whether verbal or non-verbal.

Seven Essential Tools For Managing Up

There are seven essential tools to influence managing up:

  1. Empathy – putting yourself in someone’s shoes.
  2. Listening and understanding their perspectives.
  3. Making sure the time is right.
  4. Having all your facts lined up and presenting a good case—the more reliable your points, the better your chances.
  5. Speaking at a high level about the situation and knowing how to answer detailed questions.
  6. Being politely persistent.
  7. Never underestimate the power of the ‘meeting before the meeting’.

Managing up is a process that is going to transform who you are. It will shape your leadership skills and traits. You move away from being a doer, and more into the driving seat because you are taking initiatives that will impact many people at all levels. You are not a subject matter expert anymore; you have become a Thought Leader because you are accessing more data intelligence and different conversation types. It’s not about your success anymore; it’s about the success of the team. Managing up helps you to manage downwards and sideways so that you create alignment.

What’s different when you manage up?

Tony Robbins says ‘According to Compton’s Encyclopaedia, the English language contains some 500,000 words. Yet, the average person’s working vocabulary consists of 2,000 words, which is 0.5% of the entire language. And the number of words we use most frequently, the words that make up our habitual vocabulary, for most people, average to about 200-300 words’.  This is astonishing because it implies that the language you have been using may be more limited than you previously thought.

When you manage up, you communicate differently:

  • Time is precious, so you communicate accurately and precisely: what are the key points?
  • The words you use are carefully chosen. You try to mirror the terms that your line manager keeps using. This is how you connect.  What are their ten preferred keywords?
  • The questions that you are asking are different in the way that they are related to their plan. What are their goals, objectives and desired outcomes?
  • Silence may happen more frequently because you are observing. How do you observe? What do you learn about yourself and your line manager?
  • You refer to short and long term goals more often because everything is linked to the business strategy. How confident are you in articulating the business strategy?
  • You focus discussions on transformation using ‘what if’ and not ‘what’s wrong’. How do you frame your ‘what if’ questions?
  • Use the love language: greetings, asking ‘how are you today?’, using positive words, giving (specific) praise, being grateful (specifically for one achievement at a time).
  • Use the language of hope as hope is infectious: How do you adapt your language to invite and offer different possibilities?
  • Refer to your organisation’s values, celebrate success, encourage your line manager. How do you invite your line manager in the conversations (to be an inclusive leader), how do you promote reciprocity, how do you use silence to invite your line manager to think?

What your daily/weekly/monthly roadmap to ‘managing up’ could look like

You can manage up through the power of conversations by creating a level of safety, encouraging a degree of vulnerability, strengthening the relation connectivity to continue to transform the ‘energy’ and the ‘dynamics’ of your relationship with your line manager. Maximise both synergies for maximal impact on yourself, your line manager, your organisation and your community.

Preparing to manage up

There are seven tips for coaching questions that you might want to think about when you prepare ‘managing up’:

  1. What was your understanding of your line manager’s goals, objectives and desired outcomes?
  2. Does your line manager know how to best use your talents? Tell your line manager how to use your talents and how you can use those in the organisation and to serve his or her success. 
  3. What are your strengths? 
  4. How do you deal with pressure, conflict, deadlines, and time management?
  5. What assets do you bring to the table, and how do they complement your line manager’s strengths?
  6. Learn the most opportune times to collaborate with your line manager.  How do you use your time?
  7. Prepare and send an agenda ahead of time, so your line manager knows what points you’ll be covering. Expect to lead the discussion, capture decisions, and follow up accordingly. How will you lead the conversation?

Making a real difference in someone’s life takes time and takes patience. A Gallup article points out that the average duration of the relationship with the most influential leader in ten years, which is a long time.

Push yourself and get comfortable being uncomfortable. Become a rising leader, keep asking yourself, ‘what genius do I bring to my organisation’.

Nadine Powrie is an experienced-lead evaluator, an Executive and Leadership Coach and a workplace mediator. She supports leaders in all sectors to drive change and transformation through coaching. She has over 20 years + experience in the C-suite managing a £15-million budget in the public sector and has been a secondary Headteacher.