Managing up: The lesson that transformed my work life

BSBA - Managing up - stockThe first time I ever heard the term “manage up” was when I was working for Launch, a summer program that teaches high school students to be entrepreneurs by having them start their own companies. I was the only intern in the inaugural program of this start-up, responsible for managing budgets, planning events, and assisting four administrators. Oh, and making sure 30 high schoolers didn’t get into too much trouble.

Cut to a week into the program: I wasn’t sleeping or eating. I had emails coming out of my ears. I was the sleepwalking image of stress. In short, I was a mess. And it was all because I thought I ran a one-woman show. I would take instruction from my bosses and run with it, never asking for help or more information, determined to produce a flawless result and too arrogant to ask for assistance or even clarification. My focus wasn’t on the aims of Launch – it was on my own.

That’s when my boss sat me down and told me I needed to “man up and manage up.” This concept was foreign to me, so let me to explain exactly what managing up is, how it helped me and how it can help you, too.

What is managing up?

When you manage up, you make sure that the company’s needs are top priority by ensuring both you and your boss are on the same page.

Here are a few things managing up is:

  • Listening to the goals of your boss
  • Understanding those goals by asking questions to clarify
  • Communicating what you need from your boss to ensure these goals are reached
  • Enriching your boss’ work by going above and beyond the call of duty to utilize those resources

Here are a few things managing up is not:

  • Telling your boss what goals he/she should have
  • Advising your boss on your own management
  • Demanding information and/or resources unrelated to company goals
  • Taking the credit for your boss’ work
  • Pretending you’re the boss

How do I manage up?

Managing up is a concept that is slowly working its way through the business world and may be as foreign a concept to your boss as it was to me. To gradually start managing up in your relationship with your boss, start by doing these things:

  • Send a clarification email. When your boss assigns a task that you’re not 100% comfortable or familiar with, you will, of course, have questions. Send a well-written email outlining your questions and clarifying any confusing details about the task. Trust me, your boss would rather spend five minutes answering your questions than spend two hours undoing something you did wrong.
  • Say “To do this as effectively as possible, I need…” Often times, managers will delegate tasks without considering what you need to get the job done. You can step in here. Sometimes you’ll need a certain document. Other times you may need a response by a certain date. Whatever you legitimately need – whether it’s physical, time-related or anything else – communicate those needs directly to your boss. In most cases, your boss will be more than happy to give you the small things you need so you can accomplish the big things!
  • Know when to say no. Doing your job well sometimes means realizing when you need help and when your plate is simply too full to handle anything else. If and when this happens, it’s okay to tell your boss no. The delivery should be a little more tactful than just saying “no.” Communicate the reasons why your current work would suffer if another task were piled on top of it, but stay true to the message. Your boss will respect your convictions and commitment to producing quality work if you set clear boundaries for yourself.

Life after managing up 

Armed with my new “managing up” abilities, I completely transformed my internship experience. I no longer commandeered projects and subsequently self-destructed; I concentrated on doing the work that was most effective for Launch with my best effort and the support I needed. Instead of spending valuable time running back and forth to the print shop every day, I asked my administrators to send me their handouts 24 hours in advance so that I would only have to make one trip. This request seemed so small, and they all complied. Simply giving a deadline saved me at least two hours every day– two hours I used to plan the farewell banquet held at the end of the summer.

Managing up saved my career and my sanity. No matter where you are in your career, it can help you, too. A little managing up goes a long way.

Written by Camille Cooper (BSBA ’15)