Managing Up


Recently I was on a long flight, from one coast to the other, which gave me time to get acquainted with a new book: Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO. Author and career coach Beverly E. Jones brought forward an important concept related to the boss/subordinate relationship: “managing up,” which refers to building a relationship with your boss that allows for mutual benefit.

In the book, Jones describes managing up as a series of behaviors that are much like any other form of leadership, but instead of leading subordinates, you are doing your best to eliminate obstacles placed in front of you by those who are higher up. By helping them move their agendas forward, benefits accrue that have the downstream effect of making your own goals more accessible.

Kissing up or a good career strategy?

Does this sound a bit too much like that obnoxious character you knew as the “brown-noser” from your first job who would do anything to ensure he was in the boss’s good graces? No, that’s not what Jones would suggest, nor would I. Often it’s a matter of subtlety; it all boils down to intention. If your intent is to have praise showered on you, than you’ll be crossing that brown-nosing line and quickly earn the wrong kind of reputation. But when managed correctly, your actions to help those higher up will very directly influence your own progress in a positive way.

Jones offers five suggestions for managing up. Here they are, with my commentary adapting them to the bio/pharma career.

  • Set unselfish goals. Managing up does not mean trying to manipulate people or creating a situation that puts a win in your corner. Focus on the greater good – what’s good for the department as a whole, not what’s best for you. Managing up could include proposals that will increase the visibility of the department or bring benefits to the entire team. Achieving this mindset requires, as Jones says, a sense of “authentic humility.” And remember that, ultimately, by helping your boss and the team, you will be helping yourself as well, for example, by improving the culture of your working environment.
  • Understand what your boss, department, and company needs. Look closely at your company’s plans and biggest investments and think about how your boss and your department fit into those plans. Look for every opportunity to develop ideas that will contribute to those larger departmental and corporate strategies and share them with your boss. Again, the goal is to help the team so you can reap the trickle-down benefits.
  • Maintain and enhance your area of expertise. While working toward plans that benefit the general good of the lab or department, you’ll find opportunities to develop an area where you are the authority – by gaining expertise in an area that complements your boss’s strengths. For example, she may not feel comfortable with how to council others on using social media sites to attract new recruits. If you learn about that area and become an expert, you can bring back valuable insight that can help your boss expand her knowledge and make friends in the HR department. One friend of mine became the in-house expert on networking through social media sites while he was a postdoc. He became recognized across his academic department and then in his institution as the go-to person for anything related to career networking. A year or two later, he was offered a job at a major Japanese university where this is a major part of his job.
  • Be gracious in managing credit and blame. As Jones writes, “Credit is a vast resource that should be spread around, not hoarded.” Share the credit wisely and you’ll avoid a reputation as a kiss-up. Similarly, take more than your share of the blame when it goes around. Be the one who accepts blame and quickly turns towards solutions and you will earn respect and trust. I realize that this is a lot easier to write about than to actually pull off, but if you grit your teeth, you can do it.
  • Report without drama. There’s already lots of drama in the average company —avoid doing anything to add to it. Be the one who can bring the boss solutions without inserting any unnecessary intensity. Avoid exaggeration, gossip, and negativity. Instead, gain the reputation of being direct yet tactful. Don’t be the one who tells the boss what she wants to hear, but aim to be the one who brings accurate portrayals of problems along with positive recommendations for solutions.

Choosing the right approach

Managing up is a highly customized process which requires that you to know something about your boss. You can’t start managing up from the first day in the lab as a new associate; you’ll have to watch, listen, and learn before knowing anything at all about that person’s style.

One area that illustrates this principle is communication, which is a crucial component of managing up effectively. Ordinarily, communication is an exchange that requires both parties to participate toward a successful outcome. If you and I sat down to talk over a cup of coffee, it would be my responsibility as much as yours to ensure that our exchange works out well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way when you are dealing with a boss. Simply because of their status on the prestige totem pole, they don’t have to follow the same rules.

In communicating with everyone else, you lay out your message and – hopefully – you listen well to theirs. But with the boss, you’ll need to pay close attention to that person’s preferred communication style and adapt as needed. Does she prefer direct communication, where you come right to the point and spit it all out in one minute or less, or does she prefer an ice-breaking exchange before getting down to business? Everyone is different, and your input will be better received if you fine-tune your communication to match your boss’s preferred mode of communication.

Regardless of the boss’s style, Jones suggests you be brief. “Be succinct,” she suggests. “Assume your boss is busy and you don’t want to be a time waster. If you ask for three minutes to discuss something important, but then take ten minutes to get to your point, the boss could be impatient or feel annoyed by the time you make your case. It helps to plan ahead. If you are clear in your mind about the three points you need to make, you’ll be able to state them simply and directly.”

From my own past experience, I know that it can be a real temptation to overload a conversation with too many topics. In most cases, you don’t get a meeting with the boss all that often, so you want to make it count and squeeze in every detail you’ve been thinking about. But the key is to prioritize. Do the best you can to limit the number of items in the conversation—if you try to discuss more than 3 or 4 points, you run the risk of wearing out your welcome. Nothing strikes more fear in my heart than a boss who is looking at his watch when I am trying to make an important point!

Lastly, there’s one thing almost universally true about managing up. Bosses don’t like it when you come in and rattle off problems without having a suggested course of action to go along with them. “Bring me solutions, not just problems,” is the way my first boss described it. That’s right – you may be in front of the boss to get her to resolve an important question, but you’ll still need to suggest your own course of action. She may not take your suggestion – don’t be offended if that’s the case – but with time you’ll gain respect for being proactive and creative in addressing issues that arise. And that first time the boss agrees with you, it will feel mighty good.

Some bosses will lap up the compliments and eager coffee runs of those who intend to follow a “kissing up” strategy. That’s not you. Regardless the size of your boss’s ego, he or she will have a genuine need for a person on their team who thinks about wins on a grander scale than the selfish view of a brown-noser!