How To Manage Up
When I was a junior engineer, I thought that it’s my manager’s job to manage me. It even says so in the name: manage-r. I just do my work, and my manager manages me.
In reality, the reporting relationship is a two-way street, no different from any of your personal relationships. It requires effort from both sides. As a reportee, you manage up:
Understand your team’s goals, which are the same as the manager’s goals. Then, understand what you need to do for the team to achieve its goals. Ask your manager explicitly, “What do you need from me for the team to achieve its overall goals?” Asking explicitly is good because managers rarely communicate it so directly . In addition to the what, the how, which is the overall context, is also important. For example, if the goal is to launch an MVP ASAP with a low quality, and you take a lot of time to deliver something polished, you’re not fitting in to the overall plan. At the end of the day, all of us are paid to further our team’s goals.
Be clear about your goals over different timeframes. What does your manager expect from you over the next month? The next quarter? What’s the next major career progression he’d like you to make (like getting to Senior), what skills does that require you to build, and in what timeframe — a year, two, three?
Ask yourself how you can reduce your boss’s work. Hiring is a cost/benefit tradeoff: the cost is the manager’s time, and the benefit is the value you deliver. You want to have a high benefit and a low cost. If it’s the other way around, it won’t make sense to hire you. Keep in mind that your manager has a lot more things to worry about, and the point of hiring you is to delegate some of these to you. But if you involve him in everything, you’re making him think about everything. If you have to think about 10 things, and your manager has 10 reports, he has to think about 100 things, which isn’t possible, and defeats the point of hiring you. So, try to make it easy for him by reducing, rather than increasing, his work.
Keep him informed of your work. He should never be blindsided. If you’re not clear how to do this, ask him: “Would you like a weekly update? Or would you like me to get back to you when these three tasks I’m working on are done?” You don’t want to give him too much information and take up his attention, but on the other hand, you don’t want to unpleasantly suprise him by not telling him what he needs to know when he needs to know it. The right tradeoff may not be clear to you, and depends on the situation and the manager, so ask your manager.
Don’t ignore surfacing bad news hoping he won’t notice. He eventually will, and you’ll be in a better position if you’d told him proactively. If you’re in doubt whether he needs to know, say it.
So, even if a topic is awkward, have an honest conversation with him. For example, if you have a problem with someone, talk it out with your manager. As long as he understands that you’re approaching this with a positive intention of solving the problem, and you’re open to making some changes from your side, he shouldn’t mind it.
The reason he should never be blindsided is that if it happens repeatedly, he’ll lose his trust that you can handle things by yourself. Then he’ll have to keep checking on you regularly, adding yet another item to his already long to do list. And the next time an important project has to be assigned, he’ll think about whether to assign it to you or to someone he trusts to execute well. You want to create trust in your abilities, not concern.
Think things through before having a meeting with your manager, to respect his time. Organise your thoughts into bullet points rather than throwing them all out in a heap and leaving it to him to sort out. For example, if you want to ask him three things, note them down. This is not always possible, and that’s perfectly fine, and not a reason to hold back, but when possible, organise your thoughts before presenting them .
Be organised. Don’t forget things you agreed to do, whether that was communicated orally, Slack, video call or whatever.
Be an owner, not a slave. Take ownership of whatever area is assigned to you, and think about how you can improve things. Don’t just finish the tasks assigned to you, archive them, and move on. Take initiative, and do things. This is because generating ideas is hard work, and project management has an overhead. If you take intiative, this overhead reduces.
You will occasionally make mistakes, but that’s okay. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
Try to propose solutions in addition to pointing out problems. It’s good to get into the mindset of solving our own problems, because if we don’t, nobody is going to come in and hand solutions to us on a platter. Don’t worry that your proposed solution is bad. It will be the first half a dozen times you try to solve a problem. You will improve. Just as you’ll fall off your bicycle when learning how to ride.
Managers are coaches — they observe what you’re doing and help you improve. But they can’t do this if you don’t take initative and get on the bicycle to begin with.
You could ask your manager how to solve the problem, but he may not have a better idea than you, so you’re reducing his work by proposing a solution. If you can’t think of a solution, don’t hold back pointing out the problem, though.
Understand your manager’s working style, how he likes to communicate and do things. For example, if he prefers you to communicate in writing, try it out. Maybe it doesn’t work for you, but at least try it out before you reach that conclusion. Or if he wants you to give him an update every Monday on what you did the previous week, do so.
Understand his weaknesses, and try to compensate for them. For example, if he can’t give negative feedback because he’s too diplomatic, seek it out from your peers.
Tell him how best to use your talents. If the company needs something, and you have that skill, ask if you can help.
If you do work proactively that you weren’t asked to do, point it out, so that you get credit for it. Otherwise, your manager may feel that you didn’t do enough.
Be proactive. If you want 1:1s to happen more often than your manager schedules them, schedule one yourself. If you need his help on something time-sensitive, call him without waiting for the next 1:1.
Work towards becoming a manager of one. This will take years.
In summary, your relationship with your manager is a two-way street. Both sides need to work on their part. And when you manage up well, you’re more helpful to your team, and you grow in your career.
 Which doesn’t mean that you can’t propose your ideas as well. Either way, have an open discussion, and end the meeting with a clear conclusion as to what you’ll be doing.
 This can be a good time to improve your communication skills. For example, present the summary, then the details, then again the summary. Or if you make three points, but one is irrelevant, remove it. Or if it’s less important, say that it’s less important so that your manager doesn’t think that’s your main point.