I became fascinated with the concept of leading up the chain of command after reading the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. They explained that when your organization isn’t doing what you need them to do, you have to look at yourself first. Generally, it means that you need to find a better way of communicating upwards so that everyone is on the same page.
Willink explains, “Leading up the chain of command requires tactful engagement with the immediate boss to obtain the decisions and support necessary to enable your team to accomplish its mission and ultimately win. To do this, a leader must push situational awareness up the chain of command.”
He points out that it’s harder to lead up than it is to lead down because when people are leading up, they can’t fall back on the authority of their position. “Instead,” Willink says, “the subordinate leader must use influence, experience, knowledge [and] communication, and maintain the highest professionalism. Don’t ask your leader what you should do. Instead, tell them what you’re going to do.”
This is not relevant only for people who are lower down in the hierarchy, because everyone has someone that they need to report to (even the CEO reports to the board).
As you start to climb the career ladder, you’ll also need to report to more and more senior managers and executives. Rather than becoming easier as you grow, managing up becomes more demanding and a bigger part of your job.
9 tips for managing up
In this article, I’ll be sharing nine tips for becoming a better leader by managing your boss, and I’ll be sprinkling in some insights from very experienced people in my network.
Your number one priority should be knowing how to communicate effectively with your boss. Everyone communicates in different ways, so get to know their style and preferences and adapt to them.
If they didn't do it yet, you may suggest that they write and share their executive user manual. For example, some people prefer emails to Zoom calls, while others prefer to catch up informally over the water cooler.
There’s no right way or wrong way of communicating, so the challenge is to get to know what works for them. As a general rule, introverts tend to prefer to read things and to have meetings scheduled ahead of time while extroverts prefer informal chats and spur-of-the-moment meetings.
Remember that it’s not about you, it’s about them. You can’t force your preferred communication style on to someone else just because it’s more convenient for you.
Understand their agenda
The next step is to understand what’s important to your manager so that you can help them to achieve it. You’d be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t!) by how many people don’t know their bosses’ top priorities for the year. And if you don’t understand their priorities, how are you supposed to help them?
Rui Nunes, Founder at SendXmail and Zopply, puts it's clearly: "If you haven't been briefed about the company business short-term and long-term goals, make sure you find out. This way, you're in sync with management at all times. Make sure that everybody on your team knows it too."
Don’t wait for them to tell you. Go out of your way to ask them, and then find out what your boss’s boss’s agenda is. At the same time, don’t be afraid to push back and to challenge those priorities if you don’t think they’re in the business’s best interests.
Anticipate their needs
Understanding and anticipating your boss’s unique needs can be a great way to get ahead of the game by catering to those needs before they ask you to. For example, if they always struggle with reporting, you can offer to take on the job for them. They’ll appreciate that you’re making their life easier and will remember it when it’s time to think about promotions and pay rises.
- I’d love to understand your mind so that I’m able to help out. Could you share your thought processes and game plan?
- Do you mind if I repeat what you said to ensure that I heard you correctly?
- Do you give me permission to share my thought processes?
- How can we create a better solution based on our thought processes?
Find solutions, not problems
One of the things that managers hate the most is when people go to them with problems but don’t have any solutions to offer to improve the situation. It’s often best to not even report a problem until you have at least a rough idea of how you could tackle it.
If you can find solutions instead of problems, you might find that you’re able to fix things under your own steam with no input needed from your superiors. That way, you can simply update them on the outcome, demonstrating your initiative by going to them to say, “Here’s the problem that I identified, and here’s how I was able to fix it.”
Learn to say no
Understanding their agenda, anticipating their needs, and presenting solutions instead of problems are all things that will make your manager's life easier and they will love you for it. But sometimes, you will strongly disagree with their view, and you should be able to say no.
Florence Broderick, VP of Marketing at CARTO, explains, “Managing up well requires the ability to say no and to not feel bad about it. You should support the no with data where possible. Keep a simple document with your bullet points so that you can look back at previous topics and hold each other accountable. Work for someone who loves and embraces feedback, as then it’s all much easier anyway.”
This is backed up by Rui Nunes, who says that "If you think that there's a better way to solve something different from your management, explain why you think that way, with respect and as much data as possible. Don’t be afraid to take responsibility and hold yourself (and others) accountable at all times."
Request, don’t complain
Mary Abbajay, the author of Managing Up, offered the following pearl of wisdom: “Request, don’t complain. Inside every complaint is a request. Find it and make it.”
The idea is that complaints are bad for morale and can also make you look like a troublemaker as opposed to a team player.
Edmund Ovington, Vice President at Unbabel, told me that he’s found it useful to see things from every angle before suggesting, advising, reacting, or requesting. “If you really want something done or changed, lobby for it. Write up your case in a memo, get key people onside one by one, and then set up a meeting to get to yes. If it’s important, it’s worth the time and effort.”
He also added, “Get okay with not every decision going your way. If it’s that big of a problem for you then you should start your own company. For a while, I got really upset when I did the above lobbying but didn’t get what I wanted.”
As human beings, we tend to react badly to criticism. No one likes to be told they did something wrong or should have acted differently. As you grow more senior, it can feel even more awkward to be corrected by your manager - sometimes younger than yourself.
Instead of resenting it, you should see every critique as a valuable piece of information that you can use to learn and improve upon. Instead of reacting defensively on instinct, listen to the feedback and see what you can take away from it to be better at your job. Most of the time, your manager is only trying to help.
The truth is, there's ALWAYS something to learn from every bit of feedback you receive. Even when it seems unfair and misguided, take a deep breath and consider why that is happening. You will find the learning in there if you're open to it.
While timely and honest feedback is great, micromanagement is my view of hell on earth. Avoid it at all costs!
Mary Abbajay says, “Micromanagers who dictate and control your every move prevent you from exercising independent thought, creative problem solving, and risk-taking – all things that lead to growth.”
In practical terms, you can prevent micromanagement by trusting colleagues, suppliers, and underlings to do their jobs to the best of their ability instead of trying to tell them exactly what to do.
But when you’re managing up instead of down and you’re dealing with a boss who insists on micromanaging you, there are only two things you can do. You can either communicate with them and ask them to give you the freedom to do your job to the best of your ability, or you can move on to our nine and final point.
Know when to quit
My final tip is to know when to quit. If managing the relationship with your manager is exhausting you and a resolution seems impossible, it’s probably time to look for another job. As the cliché goes, people quit bosses, not jobs.
The techniques that we’ve shared in this article are designed to make you more productive and energized at work, but no amount of managing up will make up for being trapped with a bad boss. When that happens, understand that it’s okay to look for something better. In fact, you owe it to yourself.
Take responsibility of managing up
Your relationship with your manager is too important to be left to chance. If you want to be successful in life and in business, you need to take ownership – and in this instance, that means taking on the responsibility of managing up.
I’d like to end with a final five-step process that was shared by Luigi Mallardo of Revenue Collective:
- Set clear expectations that are simultaneously specific and strategic
- Report regularly
- Don’t say anything unnecessary
- Don’t make them discover a big issue late if you knew it from the beginning
I hope you find it as useful as I did!