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How to Manage Up Effectively

Knight Campbell
August 9, 2023

Managing up is a key skill throughout your career

Taking initiative and offering new ideas to your boss helps you grow as an emerging leader and pushes your organization forward. In fact, CAPT McAndrew, USN went so far as to say the job of any leader is to connect your people to the people you work for in an organization. So, information and ideas are an organization’s lifeblood, and yet ideas often stop before they get to people with the resources and authority to make them a reality. Often leaders often get shut down when they pitch new ideas or simply learn not to speak up.

Ironically, the best way for you to stand out as a growing leader is to take great ideas and turn them into reality. To do that you will need support from your boss, so here are five ways to successfully pitch your ideas to your boss instead of creating more friction.

Learn how to manage up effectively graphic

Understand the big picture

Put yourself in your bosses’ shoes. He or she will be busy juggling many agendas. Yours is only one of them. In the past, I have been very frustrated because I had an amazing idea that my boss wouldn’t give the time of day. Then a few years later, I had that boss’ job. I suddenly and clearly understood why he had summarily dismissed my idea. People above us are usually there due to talent and experience, so granting them the assumption of positive intent pays off. Instead of taking the easy way and attributing your failed idea to another bonehead boss, try to genuinely understand your boss’ bigger picture.

Be more explicit than enthusiastic

Getting a new idea pushed forward can be a lot like making a sale. It’s easy for us to see why the idea would benefit the organization, but if we can’t communicate that clearly and succinctly to our bosses, why should they help us?

I have often jumped in with an idea full of exuberance, but I had not carefully thought through the second and third-order effects. Perhaps I was just too excited to think pragmatically, or I thought it would be much easier for me if my boss could use their experience to point out downsides. None of my good ideas went over well when I did not present both pros and cons. We might feel that we weaken our argument by sharing the potential downsides, but again, put yourself in your boss’ shoes! If she has to point out all the cons, won’t she wonder if you even thought through the idea? Wouldn’t you as a decision maker also be nervous to say yes? Why would your boss take extra time to do the homework you should have done? A good boss will demand all of the homework, because it makes the conversation much more efficient, and helps you develop professionally. Don’t get frustrated, be grateful for the tough love.

Keep all your monkeys

The authors of the 1974 seminal HBR article Management Time: Whose Got the Monkey tell this story best. We all have a tendency to put our work on others, especially the boss. Not you? Do you ever take something to your boss and follow up with ‘Let me know what I should do?’ Maybe your boss says ‘Let me look at this and I’ll get back to you Monday.’ Well, there you go. Now your monkey is on the boss’ back all weekend, and you are relaxing waiting for your boss to give further direction. If you want your boss to really appreciate you, keep your monkeys. Say, here is the problem, and here is how I intend to fix it on Monday.

Always provide solutions with problems

Speaking of solutions, make them one of your key habits. In naval aviation, when you see an issue, you bring the problem to your boss with a proposed solution- always. No one likes having a pile of trash dumped on their laps, and your boss isn’t different. If you think over the problem a little longer and come up with one or two solutions, you might surprise yourself. Maybe you solve the problem and don’t even need to bother your boss. If you’re still not sure, a problem with a solution is already part of the way there. Bonus, you get to influence the outcome. Additionally, as you build your problem-solving experience you will be able to solve more problems!

No means 'not that way'

As a young lieutenant in the Navy, I often had great (and out-of-the-box) ideas. I remember working up my chain of command with an idea for almost six months. My boss’ boss finally and summarily said no. Frustrated, I vented to my boss. To my surprise, he told me I was being immature. He said I was acting like a new officer – just giving up. What he said next stuck with me. My boss’s boss had not said ‘no,’ rather she said ‘not that way.’ Getting frustrated and pointing our fingers at our boss when we don’t get our way makes us look childish and doesn’t move us forward. After that gut check, I put another three months into refining the plan, answered all her doubts, and got my program approved. A year later the program was implemented across the Naval Academy.

How to manage up: key points

The truth is you will always be managing up. Very few people don’t report to someone or something. It’s not a mystery how to successfully get your boss’s help and stay on his or her good side, but it takes a lot of stretching. You need to truly see things their way to be effective. That requires you to stretch, assume you’re wrong, learn new skills, and do a lot of extra homework. That’s great news! After all, how else did you expect to get your boss’s job one day?

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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