Managing Up: How Young Professionals Obtain Better Outcomes by Managing Their Boss

By Jon Gerson, President, Executives Solutions for Leasing & Finance, Inc. and Harrison Smith, VP Credit Manager, Stonebriar Commercial Finance. Editors: Jacob Fahl, Opportunity Development Leader, Funding & Portfolio Services, Hitachi Capital America Corp & Camtu Vo, Digital Consultant, DLL Financial Solutions Partner.

This resource is part of the Career Development series developed by the ELFA Emerging Talent Advisory Council. Learn more.

Management is often viewed through a top-down prism by companies and employees alike. But management includes both managing down and managing up. Managing up is the process of proactively developing and maintaining a working relationship with your boss that mutually benefits you, your boss and your organization. Managing up is NOT about playing politics, climbing the corporate ladder or getting only what you want. It is not about getting preferential treatment over your peers. Managing up is an ongoing, deliberate process initiated by an employee to align what is important to you to the goals and styles of your boss and within the broader corporate mission. This process maximizes your own success and the success of your team, your boss and, ultimately, your company.

Successful employees take the time and effort to manage relationships not only with their subordinates but also with their bosses. Bosses determine what projects you work on, who you work with and when/if you get promoted. As importantly, they can also link you to the rest of the organization, align your output with the organization’s goals and secure resources for you to perform well. To be an effective performer and obtain better outcomes in your career, it is essential for you to manage those who manage you.

The basic process for a young professional to begin managing up is to:

  1. Understand your boss and his or her needs and expectations of you and your role.
  2. Understand yourself and your needs.
  3. Establish and maintain a productive working relationship that fits both of your styles, meets the expectations of your role and achieves your company’s objectives.

Understanding Your Boss and His or Her Expectations
Effective managers are excellent communicators (both up and down) and change their management style to reflect the people they work with. You do not manage an introvert the same way as an extrovert, or a salesperson the same as a credit analyst. Likewise, you should not manage all bosses as if they all share the same characteristics. Before you begin to manage up, you need to understand your boss and his or her context. Bosses are very different in personality, communication style, work habits, strengths, weaknesses, goals and priorities. They also face different pressures from their own bosses and peers at the same level.

Understanding Yourself and Your Needs
The second step in the managing up equation is understanding yourself, your needs and what you want. What are your strengths and weaknesses, communication style, goals and priorities?

Developing and Maintaining a Productive Relationship 
Bosses will not always change their styles and preferences. It is always your responsibility to make the relationship work by being adaptable and by setting mutual expectations. Understanding the differences between you and your boss will help you adapt your approach to your boss’s characteristics and context so that you can become the most effective employee you can be and create value for your boss and your company. If you do so effectively, you can wind up assisting your boss in areas where he or she faces pressure and help meet deadlines or more efficiently deliver information in a way that saves you both time. Doing so makes you both more productive. 

Mary Abbajay’s book Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss provides a framework you can use to understand your boss and yourself and align your actions to make the working relationship more productive and valuable:

Workplace Style and Preferences

My boss’s workplace style and preferences:

My workplace style and preferences:

Ways in which we are the same:

Ways in which we are different:
Strategies to Manage Up More Effectively

Things I need to keep doing:

Things I could do more of:

Things I could do less of:

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask!
To understand your boss and set mutual expectations, do not be afraid to directly ask what your boss wants or likes. Figure out his or her workstyle and preferences, pet peeves and expectations. And then adapt to what you learn. Depending on your boss, you can convey the communication style and preferences that work for you, as well. Ultimately, any relationship (professional or otherwise) involves mutual dependence between imperfect people. The better you understand the other person in the relationship, especially when it comes to their preferences, strengths, weaknesses, goals and styles, the better you can communicate. DO NOT make assumptions. ASK.

Managing up can ultimately benefit you by giving you the ability to influence your career. Focusing on managing up by itself, however, does not mean you will automatically receive promotions. Never lose sight of the fact that ultimately it is about becoming a more competent employee and valuable team player. Practicing managing up will improve your communication with your boss—increasing your influence over your projects and department over time. Better communication will positively impact your organization, which of course reflects well on your boss. As such, be brief, competent and results focused. Provide solutions, rather than complaints, by elevating issues with a plan of action rather than merely identifying areas for improvement (whether on the team, in the department, in your work or at the company at large).

You will not change your boss’s personality or work style, but you can become a better employee by knowing yourself and your boss and developing a productive working relationship that brings success to your team and organization. This should be your ultimate goal.

For more information on this subject and to learn strategies on how to adapt yourself to different types of bosses, we highly recommend reading Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss by Mary Abbajay.

If you missed Parts II & III, access them here: