Master the skill of managing up
There are a few critical skills that you need to master independently of your role or level. One of them is managing up. Especially if you are a manager - your face to face time is probably drastically limited with your boss. How to make the best of this limited time?
During my last 1.5 year at Intercom, I had a time when I neglected my managing up skills. I felt confident in the space I was operating in, my boss had a lot on his plate and I was already thinking about my next move on my 1:1s and didn’t want to invest time for status updates. So when the situation unexpectedly got worse with two of my projects at once, and I mean quite bad, it was all a surprise both for my manager and me.
I made a lot of mistakes over the last 1.5 year, but mistakes that are a total surprise to your boss, trust me, are one of the most stressful.
Be deliberate with your face to face time.
I am sure that you already have 1:1s with your boss - if you don’t you definitely should for your growth and wellbeing! But one of the critical rules about 1:1s is to avoid status updates. You don’t want to use your short 30 minutes a week talking about what happened in all your projects. You want to get some feedback from your last crucial conversation, ask for some insights from a level of management higher than you, share something you heard from your directs or talk about what can be your next step in your career.
Therefore, schedule another weekly 30 minutes of face to face time with your manager dedicated to tactical manage up. Call it a working session instead of 1:1 to clearly show the purpose of these two meetings. Similarly to 1:1, this is a meeting driven by your agenda. You should bring your tactical, recent problems and challenges that you would like to both manage up and get some feedback on how to progress best.
I often use it to align with my manager on my priorities. I love keeping a lot of balls in the air, but sometimes you need to neglect something and park it for a while. It’s always stressful to park something - what if it blows up? At least avoid a surprise that you deprioritised it and align with your boss what’s urgent and what’s important.
After you schedule a session or two, you will quickly realise that there are ways to better prepare both yourself and your manager to your working sessions. Below is a magic recipe.
Write a summary of your last week before your working session with your boss.
Writing reports for your boss are not the best use of your time. This information is usually scattered across tools you use - JIRA, Confluence, Github, whatever else. Write a report that is useful for you and is your way to prepare for your working session.
Every week I go through the same checklist for both of the teams I manage:
- What’s the current state of the team’s goals for this quarter. What are we doing each week to progress each of them? What’s the RAG status?
- What are the key metrics we track over the last six weeks? Quality status, the delivery rate of our sprints, the number of alarms that we deal with. Do I see any trends here that I would like to get deeper on?
- What people challenges I am dealing with right now? Does anything need some support?
- Did we have any big, operational issues last week? How did we react? Did we schedule any follow-ups?
- Is there anything else top of my mind? Anything that makes me feel anxious or stressed or excited?
I always highlight the parts that I want to get back to on working session. It makes it easier for my manager to at least focus on most important things if he is short on time. I treat the whole exercise as my retrospective of what happened. I try to take a step back and read this as I was my manager - would I understand everything? Is anything here a red or amber flag? If I see any ambiguity, I know that first of all I need to get back to it and second of all, it feels like a good topic for Working session.
Send it to your manager every week a day before your working session. It’s going to completely change the dynamics of your feedback loop and trust you have from your boss.
Managing up is not a skill that you need to have to please your manager. This is a skill that will let you get 10x more from your manager. With the great cadence of managing up critical information and updates from your work, you will accelerate how fast you learn.
Don’t surprise your manager - that’s one of the most stressful moments, and it hurts the trust your manager put on you. Be proactive, over-communicate, genuinely ask for feedback and opinions.