Updated: May 6, 2022
Great management isn’t just for managers. Whether you are an individual contributor or the CEO, it’s important to manage up, too. You need to figure out how to help the leaders who sit organizationally above you succeed. Helping your boss helps the company - and it also helps you succeed, too.
how I manageD up while launching a startup at MIT:
When I arrived at MIT nearly a decade ago, I was given a key and an empty office. That was the extent of the structured management. It was a sink or swim environment and I did not consider failure a viable option.
At MIT, I didn’t have a single 1:1 meeting with my boss for the first two years.
In order to succeed, I was going to have to get my boss’s attention. At minimum, if he didn’t know what I was up to there was a high likelihood that my experimental role wouldn’t be renewed. I had to convince my boss that my contributions to the department were essential. I also knew that there was no way I could scale without his buy-in and support.
The startup I was launching later became known as the MIT Communication Lab. The Department of Biological Engineering had recently discovered that their students were graduating without the communication skills they needed to be successful in their careers. The department wanted to fix this and I was brought in to find a solution. My goal was to design a new model to train PhD students how to communicate their research effectively. And yet: other resources existed on campus with this same goal. To succeed, I had to first figure out why this gap persisted and then innovate in whatever open space I could find.
I realized quickly on that I was going to need some powerful allies. I was new to academia and was aware that there were political landmines that I couldn’t yet detect. Once I had conviction on the launch strategy, I iterated rapidly until the new model gained repeat adoption by users (i.e. students).
I started to get creative about how to win the Department Head over as an ally. Although I was an intrapreneur at this time (not an entrepreneur), he essentially played the role equivalent to that of a startup Board Chair. One of my goals was to make sure he could boast our success to the rest of the department.
I aimed to make it extraordinarily easy to manage me. It was a goal of mine to have rarely - if ever - have an urgent plea for help.
I observed that, although hesitant to meet, the Department Head was really good on email. Anything you'd send, he’d write you right back. So, for the first six months, I blocked off big hunks of time every other Friday to write him extremely curated and polished email updates on what I’d been up to. Here are some of my strategies:
Email strategies FOR managING up:
Use the subject line to convey action needed (i.e. Feedback needed by Friday)
Write headers to reflected the most critical take-home messages of each paragraph
Bold subject text headers
Use bullet points to convey essential and relevant information
Share quantitative data regularly to back up points
Edit ruthlessly; use the least number of words to convey essential information
Pull out potential red flags foreshadowing turbulence
My email updates were a highly effective approach with a boss like him. But your boss may not be an email person.
Customizing Your Management Strategies
One of the faculty advisors I worked closely with never read a single email I sent. He was also extremely inconsistent at showing up when we set meetings which frustrated me to no end. It wasn’t ill intentioned - he was just all over the place all the time. So many ideas, so little time, you know? I had to experiment for quite a while until I figured out how to manage him.
In the end, I figured out that the only way to help this faculty advisor help me was to clear multiple hours off my schedule and sit with my laptop outside his office as a visual reminder. I would aim for 10 minutes of his attention in between the other stuff he was doing. I’d come with a super curated 2 minute pitch deck so I could use the remainder of our time to get his input or give him time to ask his questions to get buy-in on a critical decision.
My point is: your strategy has to change based on the people you’re managing. What works well for one person, will not work well for another. This is the key to effective management of any sort: the only assumption you can truly make is that everyone is different.
OBSERVE + EXPERIMENT WITH tricky PEOPLE
One of my founder clients recently vented to me about an extremely detail-oriented board member who kept derailing quarterly board meetings with nit-picky questions. The founder explained that this board member printed out every document that was emailed and brought them to the meeting.
We decided to try an experiment and to observe closely how this board member responded. In advance of the next meeting, the founder and her assistant put together a binder with significantly more materials than she'd ever shared before. She color-coded the binder, had an index, put tabs in, and mailed it out to each board member so they’d get it a week before the upcoming board meeting.
Our goal was to assure this board member that the founder was “on it.” We wanted her to have all of the information she needed in the format that was going to work best for her. You know what happened? The board member loved it. The founder got unsolicited positive feedback from attendees and reported it was the best board meeting she'd had to date.
I call this maneuver “Out Nancying Nancy,” based on a strategy I perfected with a really challenging boss I had in my twenties. Nancy had big feelings and was unpredictable. Almost every day, I found myself sprinting frantically to solve whatever problem had just erupted for her. It was so stressful; she was my "Devil Wears Prada" boss.
I began to study my boss like an anthropologist to see if I could identify patterns in her behavior. Then I experimented with little changes to test my hypothesis and observed their impact.
Once I cracked the code to Nancy, I made it my job to beat her at her game. I found great joy when I could anticipate problems before they blew up and derailed my day. Like the time I printed out three copies of key documents and data, left them strategic locations, and trained her assistant how to find everything so I could take a three-day vacation without fear of being fire-drilled at any given moment.
Over the years I've had so many different types of bosses. I've learned that there are a ton of different ways to manage up, such as:
managing up strategies you may want to try:
Draft emails you want your boss to send on your behalf so they can be copied and pasted easily
Create brief visually compelling slide decks to explain key decisions, providing essential information needed to have an opinion; make sure your deck takes only 10 minutes at most so you can spend the rest of your time together discussing
Print copies of recent data and leave them with your boss's assistant so your boss has recent numbers to call upon in meetings
Set up meetings for your boss with key influencers you trust to build trust greater trust
Invite your boss to an important meeting with your team or other stakeholders
Walk your boss to their next meeting to walk and talk with them
To manage up effectively, you have to understand the psychology and behavior of your boss. What do they need to know? How do they need the information? What are they worried about most? Remember: your goal is to help them help you. And if you have a really tough nut to crack, I like to think of it as a challenge: "How can I 'OutNancy Nancy?'" It's a pretty powerful feeling when you realize you can lead and manage even if you're not the boss.