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What It Means (And How) To Successfully Manage Up

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Managing up is a valuable skill at any company, but it's especially important in a startup or other high-growth environments. It can make or break your relationship with a mentor, advisor, or manager and set you up to do your best work. In these fast-paced workplaces, you often encounter managers under pressure to meet aggressive goals. Working cohesively with your manager can significantly impact your career trajectory since your manager will probably be involved in any promotion or pay raise decisions.

Managing up is so important that the Harvard Business Review put together an entire series on the topic. We wanted to share a few tips from this series and experiences from the Contrary Community that you can easily apply in your first job. Managing up is an area where we often see early-career people struggling. Finding the balance between proactively solving your own problems and reliably keeping your manager informed so they can help with issues you won’t be able to fix on your own takes time and experience to get right, but our guide will give you the tools you need to impress your manager from day one.

Key Principles of Managing Up

As soon as you start a new role, be deliberate about learning your manager's priorities, quirks, strengths, weaknesses, and general working style. Most people develop this intuition over a period of months or years. People who are great at managing up do this right away by doing the following:
  • One-on-ones are your best friend here. They're perfect for asking questions and building rapport, so you can get to know your manager better. Here are 18 questions to consider asking.
  • Ask colleagues who have more experience working with your manager for candid advice or tips. Be clear that you want to learn how to best work with them, not undermine them.
  • Once you have that information, tailor your relationship accordingly. If you know they're extremely metrics-driven, include hard data when you talk with them. If you know they're very risk-adverse, don't propose big changes out of the blue.
  • Be open about your goals and priorities, as well as your strengths and weaknesses - this will help your manager prioritize your growth and development in a tactical way
When you can quickly identify your manager's priorities and goals, you can be a self-starter and independently push projects that fit those goals. In a startup environment where everyone is bandwidth-constrained, pushing for your own projects is a high-value skill to develop early.

Always bring solutions, not problems

People don't want new issues that they have to solve. When you face a problem, instead of immediately asking for help or feedback, think through a few different solutions and have an opinion on which you think is best. Write this out and present it to your manager in a way that's easily digestible for them. Make it clear what kind of help you are seeking from your manager, as well. Do you want advice or guidance, or do you need their intervention on the issue?

Contextualize the Problem

Early career people in particular often forget that managers are balancing multiple people with various projects. What you're working on might not be the most important thing to your manager right now. The last thing you want to look like to your manager is a complainer with no awareness that there may be bigger issues for the company to deal with than whatever is affecting you in the moment. Seek help from your manager after you have exhausted all other attempts at a solution on your own. And when you do seek help, give your manager the whole picture of the problem and how it’s affecting the company, beyond just how it is affecting you.

This goes back to knowing their priorities. You should have a sense of the priorities for your role and the team as a whole, up to the CEO or board level. If you don't, ask. You will be more successful if you understand how your work fits into the whole organization. A great manager will help you figure out where your work fits into the company, but you should also be examining this yourself.

Another tip is to always communicate the overarching issue rather than challenges with the solution. For example, at Slack, employees use a message template requiring you to 1) describe the problem and 2) explain how you’ve tried to fix it. This works well because your manager has the context to help resolve the problem rather than suggesting a solution that won’t be helpful.

Communicate the Problem

Communicate proactively. Don’t let issues pile up until they cannot be ignored — that can turn a small problem into a big disaster. There are few things nothing managers hate more than surprises. For example, if something isn't going according to plan, be upfront. Let your manager know the situation and how you're thinking of solving it.
One managing up tactic used by Lenny Rachitsky, a former product lead and head of consumer supply growth at Airbnb, is to send a weekly "State of Me" email to his boss. Here's his template, lifted from this post by First Round:

The First Round post is an excellent deep dive into this subject, featuring interviews from 30 early-career people. Check it out here.
By learning your manager's goals and work style early on and contextualizing problems with thought-out solutions, you'll be well-positioned to craft an exceptionally strong working relationship with your manager.

Dealing With an Unhelpful Manager

This is an unfortunate but common situation that a lot of employees will struggle with. A manager is meant to guide your work and keep the team operating smoothly, but they are not there to be your friend or hold your hand. That said, an unhelpful, unproductive, unsupportive or incompetent manager can derail the team and make the work unpleasant. All our previous tips apply here, but there's more you should do when working with an unhelpful manager.

First, try to understand where they might be coming from. Especially at high-growth startups, it's common to encounter managers who were recently thrust into the position of leading. They may be brilliant, productive, and open to feedback - they just haven't fully developed their management skills. Try to understand what stresses they might be under, or if there's some other factor that's making you judge them harshly. If they are new to managing, it can be helpful for you to proactively suggest the structure that would help you most, such as regular 1:1 check-ins, requesting feedback sessions or even just a shared doc that outlines your current goals and problems.

Don't criticize your manager in front of your coworkers. This drains morale and can make you look like the root of the problem. At first, go directly to your manager and try to get as specific as you can, in writing, about what your ask is. For example, you could say "I want to do a good job and I need your help. I'd really appreciate it if you could make that introduction by the end of this week," or "I think that in order to do well, I need more feedback on my work. In particular, can you provide notes on my project proposal?"

Here are two examples of times when it’s appropriate to approach HR or your skip with concerns about your manager:

You need to be able to present a nuanced, balanced view of their weaknesses to the right stakeholder if you want the issues addressed without backlash on you. In a big, corporate company this can be very risky, but startups are generally much more transparent. A CEO can help you out behind the scenes and shape up someone's performance.
Ultimately, direct and respectful feedback as well as staying laser-focused on your work will help you work around a bad manager. Lean into the parts of the job that you like and take ownership over the situation. If the bad experiences with your manager are outweighing the good experiences with the rest of your work, the best option is to leave and look for new opportunities.

Being great at managing up offers compounding benefits, so the earlier you start the better. By taking the time to develop a healthy, productive, and positive relationship with your manager, you can be rewarded with faster career progression, more independence, and an overall healthier work-life balance that mitigates the risk of burnout.

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