• Laura McFarlane

Upward management: how to master the skills to get ahead


You might be thinking - “isn’t my manager supposed to be the one who manages?


Turns out, management is a two-way street. Learning how to manage upwards will not only help to improve your day to day role, but will also help you advance rapidly in your career.


In fact, to echo leadership expert Jo Miller, “many consider upward management skills to be some of the most important you can possess.


So, what is upward management exactly?


Successful upward management is proactive communication.


It isn’t telling your manager exactly what they want to hear, or sharing absolutely everything that happens in your day, or holding back information for fear of their response.


It’s when you take time to understand your manager, earn their respect and know what you need to do to help them in their role.


Mastering this will help you to exceed expectations and reap the benefits from a mutually beneficial relationship. Successful upward management is a win-win.


So how can we master this skill? Here are three areas to consider.


1. Take time to understand your manager


The more you understand your manager’s vision, goals and motivations, the better.


The more you understand... the more successful you will be,says Kim Strickland, VP of finance for Walmart.


For you, the goal here is to be able to demonstrate clearly that what you are working on is contributing to your manager's bigger picture. With their goals and vision in mind, you can prioritise and problem-solve creatively.


Reflect upon:

  • How do they like to be communicated with. By email or phone? Quickly? In a lot of detail?

  • What are their personal and career goals?

  • What is their definition of a top performer?

  • What does success look like for them?

  • How did they get into the role they are in?

  • What’s their preference on how to be approached about an issue or challenge?

If you don’t know the answers, find out. Do some research. Ask them. It’s never too late to ask questions. You will look more engaged and learn more about your manager.


Use this new knowledge to better align yourself and become an invaluable asset.


2. Proactively communicate


Like for most successful relationships, clear communication is crucial for successful upward management.


Find out how your manager likes to be communicated with. Do they prefer email, or talking over the phone? Do they like small, daily updates or a bigger update at the end of the week? These simple questions can solve a role filled with mismatched and ineffective communication.


When you know how they like to be updated, adapt to their preference. Keep them tightly in the loop with your important decisions and actions so you can work confidently and avoid unnecessary surprises.


Also, lean into their preferred behavioural style. Are they fast paced and direct? Are they focused on knowing the facts and details? Do they like sharing ideas and hearing yours? Knowing this will allow you to deliver core messages with maximum impact.


For more, our blog on behaviour styles unpicks how to identify and adapt to the four different styles.


3. Ask for and act on feedback


“Make feedback normal. Not a performance review.” – Ed Batista, Lecturer, Stanford Business School.


Seeking regular feedback is one of the most proactive ways to continually improve your relationship with your manager. Plus, acting on this feedback will likely be a powerful catalyst to rapidly improve in your role.


The word ‘feedback’ can fill us with a sense of unease. It doesn’t have to be so. Proactively seeking feedback is an opportunity for your manager to share things you could work on as well as things you are doing well.


Taking control of when you hear feedback means you have regular updates, on your terms. What’s more, your manager always has an opportunity to share without their views appearing out-of-the-blue or critical.


Try these questions:

  • Is there anything this week I could have done even better?

  • Could I have delivered the brief in a different way?

  • I feel like I didn’t share as well as I could have in that meeting, but I’m not sure where I went wrong. Can you help me work it out?

Building a regular habit of asking for feedback during one-to-one catch-ups with your manager normalises this process. Once you have the feedback, spend time planning how you will put it into action. Then reap the benefits.


As Bill Gates says, “we all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”


Taking time to understand your manager, proactively communicating with them and seeking regular feedback, are proactive ways to impress and get ahead. Get in touch if you are interested in upskilling you or your team in upward management.


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