27 September 2023

Why you may need to be your boss’ boss

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Mita Mallick* says no one taught her the importance of managing up— and it cost her one of her first jobs.

Growing up, my Indian immigrant parents instilled in me an incredibly strong work ethic.

My father would always say, “Keep your head down, work hard, and you will be recognized.”

Unfortunately, that advice has not always served me well in my career in corporate America.

While I was working hard, I wasn’t managing up.

I kept my head down working and working some more, busy trying to make an impact.

I never stopped to look up and realize that not many people actually knew what I was working on.

In one of my very first jobs, not managing up cost me my job.

I was one of the first people to be let go when layoffs occurred.

I remember my boss at that time reading from a script, holding up a piece of paper, when she delivered the news of my layoff.

She then went off script to add “you haven’t been working on initiatives that are of high value and high worth to the company.”

The truth was, I had been working on key initiatives—but I never updated her about my work.

So, now, I don’t shy away from managing up.

I no longer think of “managing up” as impolite.

I think about it as advocating for my career.

Especially during these economic downturns, we all need to be showcasing our value and our contributions to our organizations.

Here are three ways to embrace managing up, and flip the script on what managing up really means.

Keep your boss informed of what you are working on

I used to think keeping my boss informed of what I was working on was bothering them with details they didn’t need to know about.

Now, I think about it as keeping them informed.

You don’t want your boss to be surprised by what you are working on.

You want to be aligned on your goals and ensure they know about the progress you are making.

You also want them to point out initiatives that are no longer a top priority so you can stop working on them.

This is particularly important as leaders reprioritize work and cancel projects during downturns.

As someone who has managed large teams over the years, it’s hard to remember every initiative that every single team member works on.

I encourage my team members to keep a spreadsheet of all of the things they are working on, for themselves and to share with me on a regular basis.

I appreciate being kept up to date on their projects, particularly as I prepare for annual performance reviews.

Raise problems that you are actively solving

When I was younger, I would too often go ahead and start to tackle problems without even telling my boss.

Peers and other leaders would come to me and ask for my help.

I wouldn’t hesitate to jump in, trying to support them in coming up with solutions.

I never thought to include my boss, and to get their help in brainstorming.

One good way to manage up is to ask for your boss’ guidance as you take on more difficult assignments.

Come with proposed solutions and ask them what they think the best course of action could be.

Your boss may have tried one of the solutions in the past and may have learnings to share.

Or because of their network in the organization, your boss may be able to pick up the phone and enlist the help of others more easily than you can.

When my team involves me in problems they are trying to solve, I feel even more invested in the work and in turn, more invested in them.

It’s an opportunity for me to see their critical thinking and problem solving capabilities in action.

Make sure you aren’t only managing up to your boss

At one point in my career, I made the mistake of tying all of my career fortunes to one boss.

But here’s the thing: bosses come and go.

When your boss moves onto another assignment, or abruptly leaves the organization, who else knows your value and the contributions you have been making?

When it comes to managing up, you must make sure that it’s not just your boss who is a career advocate for you.

Start by ensuring you are building relationships with some of your boss’ peers.

Think about who might else be interested or aligned to some of the projects you are working on.

Meet with them to get coaching and advice on your work.

Many leaders are also open to and offer skip level meetings, where they spend time with their direct reports’ direct reports.

Ask to meet for coffee with your boss’ boss, to introduce yourself, share what you are working on, and to express your enthusiasm for being part of their organization.

Remember: When it comes to your career, you have to be the biggest advocate for yourself.

And ultimately, you need to be the one to ensure your boss, and other key leaders, are also invested in you and invested in your future.

*Mita Mallick is a diversity and inclusion leader. Currently, she is the head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta.

This article first appeared at fastcompany.com.au

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