Discover more from Tim Whalin's Newsletter
Managing up effectively
Keeping your manager informed, engaged, and happy is a skill to master.
“You’re not using your manager effectively,” my mentor told me. I was shocked. I was just complaining about how I felt bored and wasn’t being pushed to dive deeper. It’s been a few years since hearing this, but the advice has stuck with me. I was leveraging my manager ineffectively, causing me a lot of dissatisfaction in my work.
Over the years, my understanding of how to use my manager has changed through different periods of my career. Early in my career, I primarily used my manager as a collaborator to give me feedback on my work and coaching. When I reached Senior UX Designer at Amazon, I worked independently and briefly kept them informed. At this point, I made a mistake in thinking that my manager was just overhead involved in my work and that I demonstrated my seniority by working without their help. Since then, I’ve learned that my manager is an essential strategic collaborator, and I need to be intentional in how I “manage up.”
I suspect others may be in a similar boat: Either expecting too much of their manager for guidance and career coaching or under-utilizing their manager and not effectively communicating with them. Managing up comes down to aligning on expectations, communicating well and often, and using your manager effectively. Having a healthy, trusting relationship with your manager is important for your happiness and success. Let’s dig in.
Tell your manager what you need
Regardless of your role or position, managing up starts from a few basic understandings:
Your manager is responsible for you and your work.
They want you to succeed, and they want you to be effective.
Your manager is busier and spread thinner than you. They’re overseeing your work plus the stakeholders and projects of everyone else on their team.
Being a manager involves many skills that your manager is also growing in (delegation, stakeholder management, providing strategic direction, protecting teams from randomization, etc).
Let’s be honest; managers don’t have as much time as you to think about what you need or how they can help. They’re juggling priorities and where to put their focus, just as you likely are. Also, managers are sensitive to being seen as micro-managing or too involved in their employees’ work. This is where you can help your manager help you: be specific with what you need their help with. Knowing when and how to use your manager is a skill you hone over your career. It’ll look different with different managers and positions.
So over the years, I’ve transitioned from only asking my manager for input on my work to telling them how else I could use their help. This starts with learning their superpowers. If my manager excels at design excellence and craft, I’ll leverage their input on the design details. I had a manager a few years ago who was really good at interacting with VPs in our org, and I was learning how to write concise, direct emails. He helped ensure my emails were well framed, had enough context, and improved my approach to emailing executives.
Here are a few areas to ask your manager for help:
Recommend and introduce you to a mentor.
Seek feedback on your behalf from someone you aren’t getting along with.
Help you resolve a disagreement with another team where you can’t make progress without resolving the issue. This may include helping you escalate problems to senior leadership.
Communicate to a team that the work is blocked until they resolve an issue. This is an example of an organizational challenge.
Gain alignment from your skip-level manager on a specific topic or issue.
Similarly, you may need to advise your manager on how to best use your superpowers. If you feel like your projects aren’t utilizing your superpowers, talk to your manager. They may be putting you in a more difficult position to give you room to grow and challenge you. And if that’s the case, it might benefit you to understand that’s how they see it and ask for help or guidance when you need it. Or, they may be juggling a lot and not aware that you feel like you could have more impact in other areas. This is a way to discuss your career development with your manager focused on where you see your areas to grow and where you want to better utilize your strengths.
Keep them informed and in the loop
If your manager isn’t in the loop when problems arise, you’re limiting their ability to help you. You need your manager to know where you’re facing issues in your work or blocked from making progress. Your manager is in meetings you’re not in and needs to understand enough context of your work to avoid being caught off guard. They may be in a situation where they are asked to give an update on a project, and it’s an opportunity for them to advocate for you and your work. Or they may be asked to weigh in on a heated debate or “on fire” situation, which you don’t want them to feel blindsided.
Keeping your manager informed comes in two forms: 1) FYI Notes, 2) Escalations and asking for help
1. FYI Notes
The most frequent way I engage my manager is through minor updates as “FYI” notes. I send these via chat as updates, progress made, key wins, areas where the team is struggling but don’t need their involvement, or anything I feel they may want to be aware of. Depending on how closely my manager is involved in my work (this looks different every year), this may happen a couple times a week to a few times a day. This can also look like CCing them on an email, so they know about a discussion or inviting them to meetings. Often when I loop my manager into an email thread, I’ll send a separate follow-up note directly to them with a bit more context and tell them what I could use by CCing them (e.g., awareness but no action, want them to chime in, keep an eye on the thread and step in if it escalates, etc.).
Usually, I start these notes as either “FYI” or “Heads up.” Depending on the severity of the situation, I also include “no action needed” so they know I’m not asking them to intervene. Don’t say “FYI” if you expect your manager to act on your message, such as asking for their input.
2. Asking for help
There are many forms of asking for your manager’s help: input on your work, direction on how to handle a situation, strategizing on how to make your work impactful, and asking them to step into a heated situation with a stakeholder. When you raise an issue that you’re asking for your manager to help with, there are a few options for you to consider:
You deal with the problem yourself with your manager’s support (e.g. guidance, approval on the approach so they’ll have your back).
Your manager gives you input on dealing with the problem and then supports you in dealing with it yourself.
Your manager deals with the problem. I suggest giving your manager your recommendation on how you want them to be involved. For example, if you’re struggling to get along with a stakeholder, you may ask your manager to intervene to better understand what’s causing disagreements.
You do nothing and wait to see if it resolves itself.
When you approach your manager with a problem, make sure you calibrate your tone with the urgency and importance of the situation. If you just got out of a heated debate with someone, take a few minutes to collect yourself. If you’re in flight/fight mode, you may see the situation as more severe than it is. You don’t want to “cry wolf” and imply the house is on fire over a small issue or an issue that may resolve itself. Conversely, you don’t want to downplay an issue. You can hone this skill by understanding your manager’s priorities. For example, if a significant launch on your team is at risk that is a top priority for your manager, make sure they know as soon as possible.
Align on your priorities and their expectations of you
Earning trust requires being on the same page as your manager. A foundation of this for me is aligning on my priorities. In 1:1s, I’ll briefly highlight my progress and share what’s coming up in case my manager has any steers for me. I also maintain a running list of priorities organized by high-investment projects (70% of my time), medium investment (20% of my time), and low investment (10% of my time). I keep a limit to only 1-2 projects in high/medium investment, and a few things I have actively going in low investment (mentorship, culture activities, office hours, etc). Equally crucial to where my time is going is where I’m not putting any effort. I keep a running list of “backlog” tasks that have no activity, which informs my manager of what I’m not focusing on for that week/month. Learning how to discuss and share where my focus is has become essential to my success. Not only do I gather feedback, but this process also helps me gain their support. You want your manager to advocate for your work and your role. You’ll make them less effective in advocating for you if they aren’t fully informed.
Additionally, you want to understand their goals, objectives, and desired outcomes for your work and their team. Ask:
What’s your vision for the team? What do you hope we achieve in the next 1-3 years?
What are your priorities?
What areas are you most worried about?
Where do you see the biggest challenges for our team?
What are your top expectations of me?
What does success look like in my role?
What sort of stretch goals can I set for myself? Where could I go above-and-beyond to contribute more to this team?
Keep a pulse on what’s important to your manager and how their expectations evolve over time. Doing so helps you anticipate their needs and more effectively manage up.
Communicate effectively and concisely
Everyone has a different style and approach to communication. Ask your manager: What’s the most effective way to communicate with you? This includes things like frequency of pings, time of day, chat vs email, level of detail they expect, what meetings they wish to be included on, whether they are okay with multi-tasking via chat in meetings, etc. Doing this will help you work better with your manager and earn their trust. For example, I know many managers who prefer action items sent to them by email and light discussions only via chat. Repeatedly having them remind me to send requests via email loses trust.
Here are a few more communication tips:
Be concise – your manager is busy. Write what you want to say, then cut it in half.
Unless it’s time-sensitive or will block your work, consider putting updates or questions on your list to discuss in the next 1:1.
Send your 1:1 agenda at least 2 hours in advance. This gives them time to prepare if needed. Then, send notes and action items.
So to summarize, these are my tips for managing up:
To be more effective in your work, you need to manage up.
Ask your manager for help with specific ways they can contribute to the solution.
Help your manager understand your superpowers and how you want to best utilize them in your team.
Keep your manager apprised of major progress or issues in your work, so there aren’t surprises.
Escalate clearly and concisely and give specific recommendations for the solution you want.
Invite their feedback on your priorities and where you’re focusing your time
Ask them what the most effective way you can communicate with them is.
That’s all I have for today. Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d love to hear from you: What are your tips for managing up? You can comment publicly or reply directly to this email. If there’s a topic you’d like to read, drop me an email. If you’re finding this newsletter helpful, I’d be grateful if you share this with friends.