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Managing Up – How to Speak the Language of Decision-Makers

Me, 26 years old, lots of hair, but no beard; I was wearing a suit; I had a big bank as a customer and this bank had a gigantic IT security problem. They were willing to buy our solution that would solve that problem for two million euros.

I had everything set up: the supplier, our engineers, even the bank’s decision-makers said: “If you offer it like this, we will buy!”. It would have been a large and profitable deal for my employer at the time and a win-win for everyone involved.

Then, the deal had to be signed by a Director on the Board. He looked at the agreement and thought: “Who is this Aik? I’ve never heard of him. Do you know this Aik guy? – Isn’t he this 26-year old, lots of hair, no beard and wearing a suit? You know, I don’t know this fella… This is too risky! Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

So, the company walked away from an awesome deal. I had completely failed to manage up. Early in my career, I was lucky to learn why managing up is so important. 

Why managing up matters?

Most CEOs or leaders will tell you that people are the most important asset of the company. After all, they build the product, the technology, the brand; they support the customers, they make sure that lunch is served and, together, they create a sense of belonging, a team.

However, although you are the expert on talent acquisition, retention, and employer branding, thus, you know what is working and what is not, often it happens that your manager seems to barely listen to you. So, why is that?

As part of their job, your manager needs to focus on a bigger picture. They have more goals and more concerns than you have and a lot more people talking to them. So, they have learned to filter. That’s why you need to make an extra effort when communicating with them. To me, it’s not that strange that it’s hard to manage up.

3 Practical tips for managing up 

In the past decade, I’ve been working mostly with start-ups. Because of it, I was able to see all sides of the table: as an employee, manager, leader, supplier, investor, and board member. So, I was able to look at this from multiple perspectives.

Therefore, I’ll share 3 practical tips. No rocket science, nothing exotic. The tips are: 

  • Update on progress, setbacks & risks
  • Extreme Ownership
  • Provide “yes-ready” proposals

Tip #1: Update on progress, risks & setbacks 

This could be about your regular work, a project, maybe some vacancy you are working on. Why is updating so important? Roughly 80% of leaders fall in either of two categories: visionaries or pace-setters. Both of them need clear, regular, concrete updates on progress but for opposite reasons. 

The visionaries are big-picture thinkers and live in the future, or the clouds sometimes. They require concrete updates to keep them connected to reality and execution. You, essentially, enable them to get things done and because they are not natural project managers, you need to be. 

The pace-setters have no issue with that at all, because they are natural project managers and execution machines. However, they can stress out the teams & people they lead. It’s because they tend to micro-manage and will start pacing your project. By updating them on progress proactively, you show you are in control and you get them off your back. Thus, you reduce the pressure on your team.

What to update on? 

To be complete in your update, there are 6 main elements: wins, progress, goals/opportunities, failures, blockers and risks/concerns.  You can have positive or negative elements, and they exist either in the past (between last update and this one), today, or in the future. If you touch on all 6 items, you’ll have all your bases covered.

Graphic with three columns: past, now and future and two rows: positive and negative

How & When to Update

How to update?

The order is based on the picture above, thus I suggest you start with the end in mind. So, you want to restate the thing you are trying to achieve here, both the purpose (why) and the outcome. Ideally, you move on to the present and talk about the status: how things are going, are we on track, etc. It’s a bit of a summary too.

Then you fluidly move on to the wins; celebrate them, recognize your team for a job well done and energetically tick off that box (and feel good about the dopamine release). 

So far, we’ve just been informing. Now, you are ready to move into the things that went wrong: the failures… point those out! Elaborate on them. Reflect on the lessons learned and define what measures you are taking to fix it and to go forward. We are no longer just informing now, we are in the action definition mode.

Then you move from the past, back to the ‘now’ and you share your blockers. Blockers are walls you are running into now, things that are not progressing. This is a great moment to ‘call for backup’. To get some help or advice from your manager if required. Maybe you’ve just put your measurements in place, talk about that for a moment. 

Then, move on to what keeps you awake at night – the risks you see, the concerns you have. Be critical! As a leader, I’ve seen this as one of the most powerful things my people do. If they are critical, warning and share concerns about things that might happen… – well… it’s annoying, but it comforts me greatly. Again: think of measures to mitigate the risks you see. None of us like negative outcomes, especially if it’s a surprise.

When to update?

Always update: regularly, before being asked, use bullet points, a clear structure, and be concise. If you’re not, the report is going to be too long and nobody is going to read it.

Of course, explicitly ask them to take action, if you need them to. And take good care in describing exactly what you want them to do, when and why. Make sure to follow up on that. 

Pro tip: If you don’t want them to take action, be explicit too: “just FYI, no action required from you at the moment”. I’m so happy to read that! It’s super clear, I will feel you’ve got this covered. And I can be home in time for dinner. 

Tip #2: Extreme Ownership

Taking extreme ownership is the opposite of being the complaining victim. Therefore, a leader must own everything in their world: 

  • Own mistakes;
  • Admit failures, say “I was wrong” and plan to overcome them;
  • Recognize things you can’t directly influence;
  • Recognize incomplete information;
  • Accept that, and decide anyway if a decision needs to be made.

So, for example, a colleague of yours isn’t performing up to the standards.  The easy choice is to complain and blame because you believe you can’t change a person. And we all do that at times, that might be comfortable… But does it work for you? If you were to completely own this situation, you might ask yourself:

  • Do they have the resources to succeed?
  • Have they received the training?
  • Have I provided clear feedback?
  • Did I offer recognition to them for the things they are doing well? 
  • Do they understand the mission? 
  • Do I understand the mission? And do I believe in it…? 

At some point, one of my team members was not meeting standards. So, I started asking these extreme ownership questions: Does he have the time to become better? – Then, we free up his agenda, did he receive proper training? – so, we give him some more on-the-job training and give him clear feedback. I gave him another chance, and another chance… and every chance I gave him, I expected him to finally improve, to finally meet our high standards. 

Well, he didn’t improve… and not for a lack of trying, or passion. He even was a fantastic culture fit. It simply wasn’t the career he should be in. We weren’t even using the biggest talents he had.  We had to let him go. That’s extreme ownership too: “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate”.  

So sometimes, extreme ownership means to replace a member of your team. That too is owning everything in your world.

Tip #3: Always provide a “yes-ready” proposal

Take this quick email you have just sent to your manager: 

“Dear Harry, we had a leaking refrigerator again, I had to throw away all the fish, what should we do?”

Harry likes to solve problems and likes to help. So, he spends 20 minutes writing an email explaining what needs to be done to solve this problem. You receive the message and you aren’t happy with all the work you now need to do. It is not even the best solution…

The same situation, now instead, you try this email: 

“Hi Harry, 

Refrigerator broke down again. Food waste is €300 so far this year. 

I’ve done some research, and found a new fridge that sends a text message if the temperature gets too high. 

It’s €500; OK if I order it?”

-“Yes”

Harry was able to process this in one minute, you are in control of your work, you have the best solution and you feel great. So, always phrase your problems with a “yes-ready” solution. 

The impact you will have

So, there you have it: 3 practical suggestions on managing up. These things are so simple, seem so easy, that perhaps you might feel you’ve learned nothing new. What impact could this possibly have?

With proactive updates on progress, risks & setbacks you show you are on top of things for the two types of leaders and you will worry for your manager, so they don’t have to. 

With extreme ownership, you will own everything in your world. You will be more decisive and in control. Thus, people around you will start to notice. 

By providing ‘yes-ready’ proposals, you will ease the communication with your manager, and you get to choose the best solution. 

With all this, the trust you receive will greatly increase, and with that trust, your influence. And with that influence, the impact you can make. You might even be perceived as ‘more senior’, increasing your career opportunities. However, no matter your promotion, or position, we need you all to be leaders, because the future of hiring is in your hands.