The Art Of Managing Up

Bill Mills

By Bill Mills

In every organization, there is only one person who doesn’t have to deal with their leader’s blind spots, shortcomings and human fallibility. If you are that person, this article is still for you.

A friend and colleague of mine is Larry Yatch, CEO of SEALED Mindset (www.sealedmindset.com). He teaches leadership to corporations who want to raise their ability to compete and win in today’s competitive market place. Larry was a lieutenant in SEAL Team 3 during the Gulf War. He planned and led over 200 missions and his team never failed to achieve their mission objectives. Larry is the only person I know who craves criticism. The first time I worked with Larry (he shared leadership concepts and practices with 180 of my clients) he told me aft erward, “I’m not interested in what I did well today, tell me what I did wrong. Telling me what I did well doesn’t help me improve.”

Larry possesses the heart and character of a leader who challenges his people to be “hard core followers.” hard core followers have mastered the art of managing up. Here are a few of their characteristics:

  1. They demand absolute clarity of goals.
  2. They are crystal clear about what they are accountable for, both in regards to their functional role and their obligations.
  3. They don’t accept tasks that over-task them.
  4. They over communicate their current state and capacity.

At first blush, that doesn’t sound like managing up, so let’s explore how that plays out.

CLARITY OF GOAL

A hard-core follower will only accept responsibility for achieving a goal when they have absolute clarity of the desired end state (DES). They will push back, they will disagree, they’ll share their concerns and they will negotiate with their boss until they are prepared to commit to the delivery of the objective. How many times have you been unclear in your requests of your people? How oft en is your boss unclear? It is the follower’s responsibility to manage up and not make a promise they can’t keep. To manage up we must master the art of negotiating clear DES.

CLARITY OF ROLE AND OBLIGATION

A hard-core follower will manage up by insisting on clarity of both the functional role they fill as well as the obligations associated with that role. They commit themselves to becoming experts in both role and obligation until they can perform both so fully that they have excess capacity which they use to develop themselves and support others. They manage up by demanding training and resources that allow them to keep their promises and produce excess capacity for the walk-on problems that are likely to arise.

OVER TASKING

Hard core followers know their limits. They will not endanger the success of a project by accepting more work than they or their team can handle. They manage up by speaking up. As a manager, wouldn’t you prefer to hear a NO you can trust instead of a YES you can’t?

OVERCOMMUNICATING

Hard core followers manage up by initiating check-ins and updates of all critical projects. They communicate when they are ahead of schedule, they communicate what help is needed to get back on track, they communicate when reality turns out to be different than originally assumed at the beginning of a project. Hard core followers manage up by re-negotiating the DES when issues necessitate it. They also manage up by demanding feedback, feed forward and even criticism.

From my perspective, the art of managing up is really the art of being a true professional. However, I like Larry’s term of hard core follower better. If you’re not managing up you’re not fulfilling your role as a professional hard core follower. I encourage everyone to take these four precepts of managing up and share them with your boss. But, even more powerful, if you are a manager, take these precepts and build them into the role descriptions of your people. Help them understand they are responsible for managing up and you want them to do so. Then hold on to your hat because you are about to see tremendous growth in your team.


Bill Mills is the CEO of Executive Group, a CEO and leadership peer group grounded in proven processes for success. Visit www.mnexecutivegroup.com to learn more. To purchase his book, “The Power of Conscious Conversation,” send an email to Bill at bill@mnexecutivegroup.com.