Office Hours: What we talk about when we talk about managing up

This blog post was originally posted on Medium.

Your manager is busy. Here’s how to make sure your relationship is smooth, productive, and useful.

What is managing up, and why does it matter?

We believe startup work gives you far more opportunities to learn than more traditional office jobs—in fact, VFA was founded on that idea. The best way to learn how to build something is to get your hands dirty, and work on a wide range of projects in a frequently ambiguous environment. At a startup, you might bounce around from role to role, from account management to marketing, from biz dev to sales. From a learning and skills-building perspective, all of this ambiguity and change can be excellent.

But it can also be confusing and messy. Often your bosses are super busy, and don’t have enough time to sit down with you and hash out detailed plans. If you do get attention from your boss, it can come in the form of micromanagement, rather than big-picture prioritization. It’s unlikely that you’ll enter into a situation with clear goals in place, or have someone helping you figure out what to DO every day, week, or even every month. You might find yourself spending hours at work just trying to figure out what you should be working on.

In a situation like this, you might feel lost— like you’ve been told to set sail, but not in what direction. You might even watch your friends at structured organizations receiving structured opportunities to grow, and feel a little jealous. You might find yourself complaining to your parents or friends or coworkers after every frustrating day. You might develop an external locus of control.

But don’t despair! There’s a solution, and that solution is managing up.

On its own, the phrase “manage up” is corporate-speak, and advising someone to “just manage up” is about as helpful as asking an angry person to calm down. But there are plenty of tactical things you can do to have a relationship with your boss that’s supportive and complimentary instead of adversarial or resentful. Managing up isn’t telling your boss what to do. Nor is it something that you do from time to time. If you’re good at it, you’re always managing up.

Managing people is harder than you might think. Consider managing up as a way to give your manager a hand—it’ll make things easier for both of you.

The managing up basics:

Set and share your priorities.

“But that’s my boss’s job,” you might argue. In theory, sure. But most managers don’t spend enough time helping their employees select and order their priorities (especially in ambiguous environments)—often, they just don’t have the time. If you determine what three or four key things you can accomplish in a given period of time (say, a week), draft that list, and share it with your boss to solicit their input. You can save them the trouble of figuring out what to do with you, you can set your own priorities and feel out a reasonable workload, and your manager will develop confidence that you can manage yourself.

Check in more than absolutely necessary.

It feels great to be wanted!

There’s a common thread here, and it’s a little counter-intuitive: checking in builds autonomy. If you ask someone to build a house, it’s true that you don’t want to do the work yourself — but you also don’t want the house to be a total surprise. You want to share your ideas and vision, see blueprints, and be consulted on important decisions. You want a timeline, and to know how much progress is made each week. At your new job, be the over-communicative architect. Not only will you make sure you’re building the thing your boss wants, but with every checkin, your manager will trust you more. You’ll learn their preferences, and maybe even get some insight into their strategic process.

If you’re really good at this, soon your manager will barely even worry about what you send over — they’ll simply trust your judgment, and still feel in the loop. They’ll forgive mistakes, too. And in time, especially if they’re a typical startup manager who never plans more than a week or two ahead, they’ll let you create your own path for growth.

Figure out what’s on your manager’s plate.

Paying attention to your manager’s schedule and what’s on their plate can allow you to push your work forward more effectively. For example, if you see that her schedule is booked with meetings with the business development team, that might be a great time to give her an update on your marketing project to bring in more sales leads. Since business development needs are on her mind, her feedback and action steps to get you what you need may be more immediate. Similarly, it may not be the best time to talk about your website redesign project.

Autonomy can be awesome, but more independence does not mean you can cruise to the finish line without having to stop at several checkpoints along the way. Your projects will still need feedback and one or more levels of approval in order to happen, so keeping your manager’s schedule in mind can help you get what you need faster. At a startup, it often takes soft skills — reading people, being perceptive of their habits — in order to prove your hard skills and make your concrete work a reality.

The bonus round:

Give your manager a menu.

Designers often use this tactic — they’ll give a client three versions of a design, which makes the client feel in control while also minimizing the room for vague and/or untenable demands. That’s a little intense for most of your day-to-day work, but whenever you’re developing something that’s going to require strategic and/or creative decision making, present two or more options.

Stow the big ideas until you’re sure you know what you’re talking about.

Notice a process that seems a little ridiculous? Do it yourself at least a couple times before trying to figure out how to improve it. There are probably some variables you haven’t considered until you get hands-on experience—maybe there’s a reason for the things that seem illogical to you at the outset. Veteran input is respected for a reason — more tenured workers have the right experiences to inform their decisions.

Test your own process improvements before sharing with your manager.

Big, meaningful changes often start out with lean tests. When you do think of an idea to make something better, come up with the simplest possible test you can use to see if you might be right.

Once you have proof that your idea is actually useful, now’s the time share with your manager. And if it’s not? Run more tests.

Finally: don’t rush it

Be patient. You might notice a multitude of things that were “wrong” within the first week of working at my company. While this perspective is valuable, it’s probably not relevant yet. Your manager likely won’t care until he or she is convinced of your abilities and your knowledge of the company. Focus on doing good work and earning your manager’s trust—you’ll end up with plenty of room to make the changes you want to see.

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