In interviews when I ask people what leadership qualities they look for in a manager or leader (and what they don’t), want to know the number one thing they say?
“Well, I know for sure the number one thing I don’t want in a manager is a micro-manager.”
While micro management is without a doubt an affliction of far too many people managers, we don’t talk enough about how direct reports can take action to prevent the need to micro-manager.
Collectively, you might’ve heard theses skills referred to as “managing up.”
After managing a variety of functions, teams, and individuals, I have a pretty good grasp on the key things you can do to make good manager trust you enough to give you maximum autonomy.
The Five Essential Practices of Managing Up
Practice #1: Share your career vision
The desire for career growth too often comes between a manager, a direct report, and producing results. No one wants to do a job without knowing that it is leading to something great for their life and career.
Many managers want to stick their head in the sand on this topic. When you know what your direct reports want, you’re inclined to help them get it. Even worse is knowing that your direct report wants *something else* for their career, but they’re not able to articulate what that is.
The best thing you can do for your own career growth is to get clear on what you want from your career and then share that directly with your manager. Don’t wait on them to ask — ask for a 30-45 minute meeting, prepare a presentation if it helps you communicate, and then share your vision. Send the presentation to your manager as a follow up.
Now no one is confused on what you want and you can focus on executing in your current role as a way to grow towards the role you want. What your manager wants is for you to be so good at your current job that they want to promote you into a new one.
Practice #2: Understand your manager’s goals
One of the fastest ways to get what you want is to make sure your manager gets what they want. If you have a manager you despise so much you don’t want them to get what they want, you should find a new job.
There are two types of goals you need to better understand:
- How is your manager measured by their manager? What does success look like in their current role?
- What is their career vision? What is their current role a stepping stone to get in the future?
Your job is to make sure you do everything you can to make your team and manager successful according to the metrics the team is measured on. If you can also make your boss look good in such a way that they’re more likely to grow in their own career, they’ll be your biggest fan. The added benefit to you when they grow is that there’s more room for you to grow. Win. Win.
Schedule a separate time to talk with your manager about their goals. Prepare a list of questions so you can get to know them better. Here’s a starting point:
- What is your vision for your career? What do you hope to be doing in five years?
- How does your role today get you closer to the role you want to have in five years?
- At the end of this year, how will we know our team was successful?
- What metrics do you look at every day, week, and month? Where can I go to look at those same metrics?
- How does my role contribute to the metrics that determine our success?
Practice 3: Take the initiative to plan your own work
Too many people wait around for their boss to tell them what to do (and then wonder why they get micro-managed). Your manager doesn’t want to have to tell you what to do. They want you to be so good at your job that you know what to do better than they do.
If you know what success looks like for your team and you know how your role can contribute to that success, then you should be able to make a great first draft of what you should be working on.
At the beginning of every year (or whenever planning takes place at your organization), take time to sit down and build a strategic plan for your role.
What are 3-5 high level themes that capture how you need to move the needle in the year ahead? For each theme, what are 3-5 projects you can own or initiate? For each project, how will you measure success
Schedule time with your manager and walk them through your plan. If you work at a forward-thinking company for a good manager, they’ll be thrilled. You’ve given them a starting point, which allows them to give you detailed feedback. Take this feedback and adjust the plan to include your manager’s ideas to make it even better.
Taking this approach builds trust that you care enough to take the initiative, shows off your planning skills (or gives you a chance to grow if you’re not great at planning), and builds immediate alignment between you and your manager.
Practice 4: Set the agenda
If your manager meets with each of their people every week or two, they likely have 5-12 one-to-one meetings to plan for. In addition, they likely have peer level meetings and meetings with other higher ups.
Who do you think has more time to plan an agenda for your one-to-one meeting… you or your manager?
Nothing is more frustrating as a manager with a slammed calendar than walking into a meeting without an agenda. When there’s no agenda for a one-to-one, the number one thing a manager is going to default to is to ask for status updates. Status updates feel like micro-management and are a bad way to use meeting time.
Neither one of you wants this. The way out is to set the agenda yourself. If you’re meeting with your manager, treat it like a personal mentoring session.
Here are categories of items to add to your agenda:
- Work tasks you’re struggling with or want their perspective on
- Projects you’re struggling to prioritize between
- Specific feedback you’d like on current or past projects
- Interpersonal conflict or blockers with other teammates
- Advice you’d like
- Career growth conversations
If you don’t have an agenda, you should cancel the meeting at least several hours in advance. Never cancel more than one meeting in a row if your goal is to effectively manage up.
You can apply the same principle to any meetings you attend. If there is no owner of the agenda, become the owner. Ask each person ahead of time what they want to cover. Request written updates to inform the meeting where necessary. Be the driver of progress. Otherwise, you’re just wasting time sitting in meetings that don’t drive progress.
Practice 5: Hold yourself accountable by sending proactive updates
It sucks to hover over your direct report’s shoulder. Asking for updates feels like being a pest.
You know what else: there is not a manager in the world who can do their job without knowing how well you’re doing yours. If you don’t want your one-on-one’s to be status updates, then you need to create another mechanism for keeping your manager up to date.
The best way to do this is with a quality written update once a week. Some managers will want an update daily. Do what your manager needs so you don’t have to worry about them taking your autonomy.
Here’s what a great update looks like:
- Status of success metrics (with percent to goal included)
- Status of in progress projects (with an assessment of whether it’s on track for deadline)
- Blockers, questions, and conflict preventing progress
- Action items for your manager to help you move faster
Every manager would love to have this from each direct report each week. Be the direct report that shows up in this way.
The three most important reads on managing up
I’ll be honest, this week’s topic doesn’t require extensive reading to be successful so long as you apply the tactical advice. At the same, time if you’re struggling with the confidence and tactics to manage the relationship with your manager and other leaders in your organization, these reads will be useful.
- The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter – This book is more than a guide on how to transition into a new role, it provides a step-by-step master plan with checklists, practical tools, and self-assesments that help with managing up using the steps I have listed above.
- The HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across – HBR is one of my go-to sources for strategic insight on building my career. The content often sits at the theoretical and strategy level rather than tactical, but thinking strategically is a core skill required to grow your career. This is a guide of their best reads on managing up.
- Managing Up: How to Move up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss – This book is leadership consultant Mary Abbajay’s guide to building meaningful relationships with leaders in your organization in order to accelerate your career growth.
Make it easy for your manager to give you autonomy
Having the freedom to fail is one of my nine principles of meaningful work. This requires autonomy.
Most managers worth their title want more than anything to give you absolute autonomy and have you produce results. Many of these same managers have been bitten by giving too much trust and autonomy to their teams in the past.
Because of this, managers adapt their practices to make sure they’re able to be successful in their own roles. They check in regularly for status updates, set agendas centered on what you’re getting done, and generally become a pest (from your point of view).
If you can take a step back and realize that they’re only doing these things to make sure they achieve your team’s goals (and by extension their own goals), it becomes much easier to make sure you both get what you want.
Practice these five things to effectively manage up (and earn the autonomy you crave):
- Share your career vision
- Understand your manager’s goals
- Take the initiative to plan your own work
- Set the agenda for meetings
- Hold yourself accountable by sending proactive updates
If you do, both you and your manager will have a better experience at work every day. In the process, the discipline required will also produce better results.