Managing Up

One of the greatest mentors I’ve ever had in my professional life is named Heather Hough. When I was just out of college, she took a big chance on me as an over-confident, inexperienced grad and opened doors of opportunity I wouldn’t have had the chance walk through otherwise.

She taught me many lessons, but one in particular has made a significant impact on my career. It is a concept she referred to as “managing up.”

In organizations, the word “management” almost always refers some level of top-down authority or hierarchical leadership, even in ‘flat’ company structures. Managing up is the initiative of first looking beyond your own work to understand its context in the broader business, then second, understanding responsibility of the person you report to, finding ways to contribute to their success.

Good employees do good work. Great employees do excellent work and find new, creative ways to make the business better. Future leaders seek to understand how their work and the work of their leader adds to the bottom line of the business and proactively helps equip their manager to deliver results.

Ideas like these can easily become somewhat ambiguous, easily-Tweetable business wisdom, but why is this true?

In a a perfect world, a manager’s responsibilities would be clearly delineated between the work, analysis and thinking they need to do themselves and time they spend devoted to supporting their team in producing work. Generally, the balance becomes more weighted towards supporting a team as a manager grows in responsibility. Most of us, though, live in a world where our responsibilities aren’t clearly delineated. We also work in organizations that are changing—growing, fighting for survival, entering new markets, etc. Lines of responsibility are often a moving target and many people find themselves mismatched to their role or working for someone who is mismatched to their role. (That’s why many of us have had “managers that don’t do anything” or a boss “that does great work, but can’t lead the team.”) Even when someone is a great match to their role as a manager, operating in a changing environment means that they will struggle to find balance.

As a leader, working in a dynamic company (with shifting responsibility) requires that I have to strike a balance between “making” and “managing” (which I’ve written about before1). Certain seasons are better than others. No matter the circumstances, though, fighting that tension means that there will always be gaps in my ability to both fully support my team and do the specific work I’m responsible for (especially if I want to live a balanced life).

Employees producing great work certainly lessen the amount of support needed, but those who manage up fill gaps on both ends. Not only do they consistently do great work, but they take on leadership roles within the team and proactively support the individual responsibility of their leader—work that is often delivered directly to higher levels of management. Though it takes on many forms, the end result is that the team (not just the leader) is more fully equipped to produce a high quantity of high-quality work that, to the executives running the business, is making a visible contribution and “adding to the bottom line.” In less business-y terms, that means that your work is moving the business forward in a meaningful way and people can see it. In most cases that’s really good news for your career and your manager’s career (which are often intertwined anyways).

Not everyone is designed to lead a team at a company, but if that’s one of your ambitions, a great place to start is asking the person you report to about how your work fits into the big picture of the business and learning more about the work they are responsible to deliver themselves.

1. You can read my posts about the transition “From Maker to Manager” here.

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