Managing upward

Apr 21, 2024

Mastering the art of managing upward is crucial for career growth, involving understanding, aligning with, and proactively supporting superiors.

I can credit some of my success over the years to learning the practice of managing upward. This is not a concept we usually think about. Instead, most of us have taken numerous courses and lectures on management tactics telling us how to manage our direct reports. Some even discuss lateral management. But what about the leaders above us? Understanding this can be crucial to your career development and, ultimately, your success.

Think back to the interactions you have with your staff. Are there people you feel in sync with? Does some of your team always seem to bring you the right information at the right time? You probably have a subconscious list of idealistic things you wish your staff did in working with you. Now, think about how you interact with your immediate boss. How many of those idealistic things do you do with them? Here are three tips I will share with you:

  1. You cannot get your boss the information they need if you don’t know what that is. Obvious, right? But it may be more challenging than it appears. I frequently repeat something my dad told me when I graduated many years ago. He told me my job was to make my boss look good. While that sounds very self-centered of our bosses, what my dad meant was that my job was to understand my boss’s goals and to work to help them achieve those goals, keeping in mind that my boss’s needs represented the needs of the company and the clients. So, we need to take time to really listen to what they are telling or asking us. You may need to ask some additional prying questions to dig further into why they are requesting particular information or to understand their goal. You want to be aligned with that objective. Be aware of their priorities and adjust yours accordingly. Delivering a quality product is not limited to our projects. Try thinking of our bosses as internal clients.
  2. Sometimes, arranging a time to meet with our boss can be a difficult first step. If you think you are busy, know that your bosses (usually) are working just as hard, if not harder. So, try to make it convenient for them. I might schedule a meeting on those Fridays when I know their day is less booked. Learn their preferred communication style. What form of communication do they prefer? Do they prefer email, chat messages, and texts, or do they actually like to talk? Do they only check messages at certain times of the day? Do they prefer to read information or be told the information? I remember one of the things I would do with my former boss was to appreciate his time constraints and try to combine my questions or responses. It worked better for him to talk to me in a slightly longer block of time than in random interruptions. Last, make yourself accessible to them. When they have questions, they will feel just as frustrated if they cannot find you or if you are slow to respond to an email.
  3. You’ve heard this before, but I will say it again – be part of the solution, not the problem. I would always ask my team to bring me two or three alternatives to any problem they had. Then, we could talk through them together and settle on a direction. Well, don’t our bosses deserve the same? Think about your workload. How many things on your desk were “delegated” back to you because a team member dropped a problem on your desk, and you told him, “You’d look into it.” These “upward leaping monkeys” keep you from spending time on primary assignments. So do not do this to your boss. Take initiative and recommend a solution (or two) to the problem. An extrapolation of this is to anticipate a request or problem. Then, you are ready to respond even if they do not know what they need. A final thought on this, though – do not give your boss a sanitized version of a problem. When the reality comes out (and it will), they will be surprised and won’t look very good to their peers.

There are other suggestions, but these are a good start. Whether we want to admit it or not, bosses control our professional success. So, having a good working relationship with them is crucial if you want to grow inside your firm. For one reason, bosses and clients remember who makes them look good. And they will want to continue to work with those people. For another, if our boss succeeds and moves up in the organization, that promotion you’ve been eyeing may have just opened up. 

Greg Sepeda, retired, was formerly chief engineer and vice president of operations at Sigma Consulting Group, Inc. (a Waggoner Company). Contact him at

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