Project Practitioners > Managing Up

Managing Up

By Ed Reynolds

We all know doing a great job is rarely enough to be successful as a manager. Sometimes, understanding the nuances of your boss' personality is a lot more important than how you actually perform on the job.

I had a VP at one company that enjoyed yelling, "Jump!" and seeing how quickly everybody would comply. He wasn't malevolent; he just really enjoyed having a staff that waited on him. His admin waited on his every word. We joked that she removed people from his favourite stall when he needed to go to the restroom. But his style made everybody say, "How high?" when he barked. On one occasion, a fellow employee was taking leave to have complicated cancer surgery and we had planned a send-off luncheon for her. 30 people were booked for the event but the boss, Steve, replied to the invitation saying he wished to attend but couldn’t because of a business conflict. His admin took that as a directive to get the thing rescheduled. I took her into his office with me and asked him if that was what he intended. "Of course not," he said.

Steve was full of big ideas and loved the concept of “staff work.” I decided years ago that staff work is code words for stuff your boss should be doing but he is too busy schmoozing his boss. The problem with Steve (as you may have noted from above) is that you couldn’t tell whether he was assigning you staff work or just thinking out loud. He would periodically come out of his office with some new idea and “shop it” to everybody he passed. He would darken every open door on his watch saying things like, “[insert your name here], we really need to get going on a partnership with XYZ Company.” One afternoon he peddled this to four different people on his afternoon floorwalk. I heard him do it and I knew the other guys were already executing! When he got to me, I asked him to wait in my office for a minute while I fetched the other staffers. I asked Steve which one of us he wanted to take the action, or did he want us all to work on it independently or maybe together? And you know what? He was just making conversation!

Steve actually appreciated my intervention in these situations. I helped him clarify his intentions and stopped unnecessary work. Managing up effectively almost always requires you to seek clarity, no matter how uncomfortable it might make you feel. Sometimes churn happens but helping your team avoid fire drills and wild goose chases is part of a good manager’s job. We all have plenty of real work to do.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

This is such a refreshing article. I am one of those people that speaks up and asks for clarity and so I really value these types of articles. We also refer to something we refer to here as "shiney baubles" those projects that sounds really cool but nobody has considered the resource output. Thank you so much for posting this.

Steve is very fortunate to have you present, Ed. Many people avoid taking the initiative like you do. They also lose the opportunity to stand up, be noticed, and make greater contributions. Your actions put you on a path to greater success in your career. Keep up the good work!

Along this line, a new book on "Advising Upwards" has just been published. Alfonso Bucero and I contributed a chapter on "From Commander to Sponsor: Building Executive Support for Project Success." Many world-wide experts contributed enlightening chapters.

Randy Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy,

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