I took my first job at age 13, building model planes and skateboards at Palos Verdes Hobby Shop. Over the past 40 years, I’ve reported to over a dozen people. Some were inspirational and charismatic. Others were more task delegation oriented. Some were problem solvers. Others shunned detail. Some were great listeners. Others were talkers.
Every leader is different and working for them requires an understanding of their preferences. Although I’ve never “managed up”, I have adapted to the needs of the various people I’ve worked for.
Here’s my advice on thriving in complex hierarchical organizations.
1. Assess your peers and your superiors frequently. Imagine yourself on a balcony watching the people in your organization as if you were watching a play. Understand the self interest of each character. Just as personalities would be described in a work of fiction, you’ll see the self-interested careerist, the servant leader, the manipulator, the fair weather friend, and the person you’d want in your foxhole during battle.
2. When you run a meeting, play to the characteristics of each person you have assessed. If someone does not like details, do not ask them to be on a task force to write the plan, ask them to serve on the steering committee to approve the plan. If someone wants to avoid blame at all cost, shield them from any direct responsibility for the project. If someone needs credit to reinforce their ego, give credit liberally. Keep in mind - “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan” and “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
3. Determine the information flow needs of your superior. Does the person want a detailed progress report with an honest assessment of delays and goals not met? Does the person want a single high level powerpoint slide with green, yellow, red? Do they want any communication at all? Will they offer to remove barriers/accelerate enablers, solving problems? Will they shoot the messenger? Based on the style of your superior you may produce an elegant project summary documenting progress or adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach.
4. CEOs last about 4 years. This Harvard Business Review article describes the typical pattern of a CEO transition. If you find the leader of an organization hard to work for, you can leave, ignore the problem, or just wait them out. Be careful of believing the grass is greener elsewhere. As one wise person recently told me - “If you study the leadership of large, complex organizations you’ll find it’s the same clowns, different circus”
5. Recognize that 10-20% of your work life will be spent on non-value added activities. Your organization will likely have standing meetings that may not be relevant to your area, but your presence/visibility reinforces your place on the team. Such meetings may feel like an interruption in your ability to do creative work, but maintaining a supportive environment for real achievement requires the buy in of your peers and superiors. Convince yourself that investing 10-20% of your work time in the meetings required by your superiors will pay dividends over time. And if you find a particular standing meeting to lack value, remember that with senior leadership turnover every 4-5 years, the meetings will change soon enough.
Life is short and none of us will have a gravestone that says “I managed up and lost 10-20% of my productivity”. However, part of maturing as a leader is realizing that to accomplish the things you like, you have to actively manage the things you don’t like. Managing up, adapting to your superiors and peers of the moment, is an advanced leadership skill.