by Achim Nowak

How Well Do You MANAGE UP?

November 29, 2020

My friend Christine hates this phrase. Managing UP.

Patriarchal power nonsense, Christine will fume. Corporate-speak for sucking up to people with authority.

I get Christine’s frustration with the terminology. In a more utopian universe, we’ll just have people talking to people, regardless of position. None of this managing UP, managing DOWN, managing LATERALLY stuff.

Reality check. Most corporate CEOs are beholden to a Board. Their ability to manage this Board is pivotal to their success. Yup, even CEOs have to manage UP!

These are some of the prompts I hear in my work as Executive Coach. Whispered to me by Chief Human Resources Officers and Heads of HR:

  • Joe manages UP really well. He is, however, horrible in relating to his peers.
  • Sheila manages her direct reports magnificently. She is timid on the Executive Team and ineffective at managing UP.
  • Ignacio manages UP really well. He manages DOWN well. He needs to do better with LATERAL relationships.

Like it or not, even in very “flat” organizations we work within social power dynamics. When we don’t manage these dynamics well, they quickly become our professional achilles heel. And these power dynamics never, ever go away. It behooves us to see them for what they are. And manage them.

Here are some power dilemmas as they play out on the Executive Team of a global manufacturing enterprise. Mitch, the CEO, has an immediate team of 9. Some of the 9 are CEOs of their own multi-billion-dollar enterprises that fold into the larger organization. Because of the size of the team, the quarterly team meetings last 2 full days. Joe is one of the mini-CEOs on Mitch's Executive Team. This is his stream-of-consciousness rant about the dynamics on the team:

These meetings suck. Everyone does a 30-minute update. I have lots of thoughts about some of the other businesses and their strategies but I have decided to keep my mouth shut when they present. I don't want to ruffle any feathers (managing LATERALLY). I wish Mitch would challenge my colleagues a little more aggressively when they present unconvincing data. I have given him this feedback privately (managing UP). I'm not sure it had any impact, so in the Executive Meetings I just make a strong effort to agree with Mitch when he presents a new idea (managing UP). I don't want to be branded a trouble-maker.

Because our ability to build substantive relationships with folks in authority impacts the pace of our career progression, let’s look at 4 specific Managing UP behaviors. These behaviors strengthen our relationship with any boss or authority figure.

  1. Understand What Makes Your Boss(es) Tick.

This transcends knowing their strategic goals and priorities. You DO want to know those. But understand your boss' innermost drivers. What makes her get out of bed in the morning? Winning? Stability? Experimentation? Radical honesty? Civility? How does he like to feel when he engages with you? Have fun? Provoked? Reassured? Energized? Validated? And what are some of the wounds that s/he carries? A marriage perhaps that has failed. Persistent health concerns. Disloyal employees. How have these wounds shaped his world view or her sense of herself?

The phrase it's lonely at the top is both a cliche and true. Chances are, your boss doesn't like to feel lonely. Be one of the trusted advisors your boss likes to confide in. Make sure you respect her preferred communication cadences. Know his preferred communication channels. Quick emails? Texts? Scheduled mini-meetings? Spontaneous calls? In case of doubt, ask. Don't get stuck in They're so busy I don't want to bother them thinking. Co-create a helpful communication eco-system that supports your boss' needs and desires.

  1. Be 3 Steps Ahead of Your Boss(es).

Don't "make" your boss pepper you with Are you doing this? or Have you thought of that? questions. BE the one who is already doing that and has already thought of this. Don't have them manage YOU. Manage THEM

Being 3 Steps Ahead starts with what you know from item #1. So, vault into action. Anticipate challenges. Work to prevent them. Find potential solutions and view yourself as a solution-provider. Offering a solution does not mean getting fixated on the one PERFECT solution. Remember, bosses tend to be super-smart. They want to respond to your solution ideas. They itch to contribute. Present your potential solutions - and then co-create,

Take the notion of being ahead a step further - mind you, not easy - and become the one who surprises a boss with growth ideas s/he hasn't considered. Not easy because your super-smart boss is already spending a lot of time on strategic thought. Show YOUR strategic prowess. Exercise that muscle. Surprise your boss with YOUR ideas that reach beyond short-term results. Go there.

  1. Instill Confidence.

I long to believe that you know what you're doing. Don't wish to wake up in the middle of the night and worry about your business. Want to have faith in your ability to get it done. It's the biggest gift you can give me!

You don't instill confidence by giving me "happy talk" or telling me what you think I want to hear. You don't do it by sugar-coating things to make yourself look good. My confidence is strengthened when I know that you have assembled a top-notch team. When I have faith that you don't have blind spots about this team. When you bring major business challenges to my attention quickly instead of shielding me from unpleasant news. Most importantly, my confidence grows when I hear your problem-solving ideas. Don't bull-shit me. Bring ideas instead.

Last but never least: Share your successes with me. Don’t retreat into being the worker-bee who doesn’t take credit for accomplishments but resents those colleagues who DO claim their successes at the Executive Team. Success begets more success. Success stories bolster my confidence, Do not withhold them, please.

  1. Hold Your Boss(es) Accountable.

Chances are, you have had meetings with bosses where you left feeling great - and then nothing much happened afterwards. Ideas got kicked around, and no follow-up occurred. You had a momentary "boss-high" - only to feel deflated within days.

Chances are, you settled for the feel-good. You didn't contract UP. Especially if you have a boss who is also willing to settle for the feel-good, you just wasted a heck of a lot of get-something-done time. Contracting UP looks something like this: As the meeting nears its end, take charge by saying Hey, Marge - based on what we just talked about, here are 3 things I will take care off within the next 24 hours. And if I understood you correctly, here are the 2 things you will look into after this chat. Will you have time to get to it next week? Is it Ok if I loop back to you on Friday?

Clear. Reasonable. Your boss will appreciate the fact that you mean business. She is likely to hold up her end of the bargain.

You just contracted UP. It's a win for you AND your boss.

Social and positional power are real. We will never, ever be able to manage UP successfully if we have either too much reverence for these powers or approach them with undue fear. Don't show up at work as the little boy or little girl who is afraid of authority. Sounds obvious, doesn't it? It is - and it is not easy to do. Our childhood conditioning that keeps us infantilized runs deep.

In the end, my friend Christine is right, of course. In the end, it's always just one human speaking with another.

Understand power. Manage UP.  Do it well.

It begins with managing ourselves.

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