Many people use the phrase managing up to mean influencing your boss or other leadership to support you and your projects. Instead, managing up is about driving and maintaining alignment among your goals, your manager's goals, and the organization's goals. Support for you and your projects is what follows.
Unfortunately, many professionals are stuck in the mindset that managing up is just a tactic to achieve their individual goals. This mindset causes them to develop their managing up skillset incorrectly, establishing bad habits that have negative ramifications for their careers.
Mid-career professionals struggle with upward management because it requires a fundamental mindset shift in how you approach your relationship with your manager and other leaders. Successful upward-managers have a finely honed sense of empathy and prioritize helping their leaders achieve their goals first.
Managing up is challenging to do well and is often a source of anxiety, especially in high-stakes situations. Most mid-career professionals only gain this skillset through a painful process of trial and error; people who don't master it typically find themselves in the Career Canyon as they attempt to transition from senior IC to leadership roles.
About the Authors
Valerie Wagoner is currently the Head of Product, APAC at Stripe. She was previously Chief Growth Officer of GoPay, the payments and financial services platform arm of GoTo, and VP International at Credit Karma. Prior to those experiences, she was the Founder & CEO of ZipDial before being acquired by Twitter.Learn More
Anne Lewandowski is a former OIR at Reforge, Former Product Lead, Growth at Apartment List and Senior Product Manager at Course Hero. Anne has helped publish Marketplace Supply Strategy, The Power User Trap and more.Learn More
Dor Levi was most recently an Executive VP at Lyft, where he led the bikes, scooters and transit business vertical. Dor is also a former EIR at Reforge on Product Strategy and Product Leadership.Learn More
Matt is the CTO at Reforge. He brings a unique cross-functional perspective on product, growth, and engineering after more than a decade leading engineering teams and shipping product in both B2B and B2C companies as VP of Engineering @ Credit Karma and CoSo Cloud.Learn More
Special thanks to Joanna Lord (ex-CMO of Skyscanner) and Keya Patel (ex-Dir Product Growth at Headspace) for their contributions.
What managing up is not
Managing up is not the same as being political or escalating problems.
Many people think they are managing up effectively but are not, often falling into two common failure modes:
- The politician: You may be falling into politician mode if you find yourself telling your manager what you think they want to hear, withholding negative information or feedback, or developing relationships in ways that feel inauthentic to you. Well-intentioned professionals become politicians for two main reasons: 1) They have experienced organizations where these behaviors are rewarded; 2) They have been taught these tactics but haven't made the necessary mindset change to apply them; they still think in terms of "how do I get what I want to meet my goals?"Some of the politician's tactics can resemble good upward management on the surface, but their tactics ultimately end up unsuccessful when there is misalignment with their manager's goals or with the organizations' needs.
- Common behaviors: These people may try to appeal to their managers' needs and wants in inauthentic ways, at times resorting to flattery and parroting their managers' language. They may rely on exclusive personal relationships to gain information and resources, instead of building broad coalitions. They care a lot about making themselves look good and may hide problems from leadership.
- Results: This person may be successful in the short term, but typically they lose trust and effectiveness once it's clear that they have a tendency to "tell people only what they want to hear" or that their goals don't move the organization forward. Unfortunately, these people can set a negative example for their peers, who may begin to equate upward management with manipulative behaviors.
- The problem finder: While appropriately escalating problems is part of managing up, many people escalate problems in a way that actually creates more issues for their leaders. If you find yourself often voicing feedback and highlighting problems, but you're having limited success in getting support or implementing solutions, you may be falling into this failure mode. Perhaps you've heard the saying "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" and have taken that guidance to heart, escalating every problem you encounter immediately to your manager. However, in this failure mode, finders lack the tactical skills needed to garner support and can gain a reputation for not being able to solve problems.
- Common behaviors: These people often have good intentions and think they are proactively sharing information and appropriately escalating problems; however, they are actually making their manager's job harder by complicating situations and creating more chaos. They assume the problem exists because their manager isn't aware of it (which is usually false), and they don't make efforts to understand the complexities that contribute to the problem or develop appropriate solutions. They may push hard for impractical solutions at the wrong time, or deliver arguments in ways that consistently fall flat. Ultimately, they end up creating more work for their manager.
- Results: Leaders may begin to view problem finders as problem creators instead of problem solvers; as a result, leaders may lose trust in their ability to tackle more complex and impactful problems. Problem Finders may develop a reputation for being negative or complaining too much. Conversely, the finders may feel like their ideas are not valued and grow increasingly frustrated as their needs go unmet.
Resetting your managing up mindset
Managing up actually requires a similar approach to managing down.
Many professionals already know that empathy is extremely important when managing down; however, they seem to forget this lesson when it comes to managing up. People fall into the above failure modes when they think of upward management as a way to get what they want, and they lose (or never develop) empathy toward their managers. Ultimately, many mid-career professionals need to completely shift their mindset in how they approach upward management. As Matt Greenberg describes:
"People have accrued bad career advice, which puts them in a closed mindset in terms of working with their boss. People fail at managing up when they primarily look at their boss as leverage to their career and have zero empathy for them. Good managing up is someone who is a giver to their leader; bad managing up is someone who is only a taker."
—Matt Greenberg, Reforge CTO
Ultimately, effective upward managers cultivate empathy toward their leaders, the same way they would toward a direct report. Specifically, this looks like:
- Aligning personal and organizational goals
- Taking an empathetic approach to working together
- Packaging problems in a way that makes helping easy
Aligning Personal & Organizational Goals
Good people managers find opportunities for direct reports to achieve personal goals (e.g., develop new skills, earn a promotion) in ways that also deliver results for the company. Similarly, good upward managers help their leaders achieve personal goals as part of their efforts to drive company goals.
This requires clearly understanding your manager's goals and how they relate to the company goals. Many people think they know their manager's goals when they really just know the company strategy, causing them to overlook their manager's personal motivations or values (e.g., launching innovative products, being a mentor to junior colleagues, or achieving healthy work-life balance). Having a solid understanding of your manager's goals can help you avoid situations where you unintentionally undermine them.
"A good follower gets their leader where they want to go. You have to know where the leader wants to go and make it easy for them to get there."
—Matt Greenberg, Reforge CTO
However, while understanding your manager's personal goals provides important context, you should be cautious in situations where your manager's goals are not directly aligned with the company's. While complete misalignments are rare, long-term success in your organization will require making sure you are moving the company's goals forward, not just your manager's. Ultimately, the most effective upward managers help their leaders achieve their goals by way of their efforts to move the organization forward; they have a clear view of how their goals and their manager's goals fit within the organization's strategy stack. On the other hand, ineffective upward managers either lose sight of their role in helping their leaders achieve their individual goals, or they prioritize their leader's goals over the organization's.
"In general as a team member, it's good to default to trust —that everyone is there to make the company successful and that goals are all aligned accordingly. But be aware of this. Serving personal motivations that are more selfish and not aligned to the good of the company can cause you to become a "politician" even if it's helping your boss be successful. If what your boss wants is, for example, to get promoted, hopefully the way to do so is via achieving the company's goals rather than more short-sighted personal goals."
—Valerie Wagoner, Reforge EIR, GoPay CGO
An Empathetic Approach To Working Together
Good people managers understand what their reports need to do their best work, ranging from setting norms around working hours to establishing a sense of psychological safety and trust. Good upward managers take the same approach to working with their leaders.
Begin by asking questions, and listening to the answers.
Asking questions is key to understanding your manager's goals. In addition to asking questions about company strategy and projects, dig deeper and ask about their career growth and aspirations, as well as questions about process and how best to work together. Reforge EIR Valerie Wagoner offers some specific questions that can help you get started:
- Preferred formats for different types of information: What types of information do you prefer to receive via Slack vs. email vs. in person?
- Scheduling and other time commitments: Are there any times or days of the week I should avoid asking for your attention due to other priorities (e.g., family, focused work time, etc.)? Valerie notes: "Even if the answer is 'any time is good,' just the act of asking this question shows empathy."
- Handling problems and bad news: How do you prefer to receive bad news? Do you want me to tell you about problems immediately when they arise, or would you rather I try to solve it myself first and escalate when I have a proposed solution?
- Feedback: How do you prefer to give feedback? Receive feedback? What is feedback you've given to people on your teams in the past for how to work with you better?
Documenting these answers for your manager and yourself in the form of an "operating manual" can be helpful as teams grow and scale.
Think About Your Manager's Trust And Safety
Many middle managers know to pay attention to their direct reports' feelings of trust and safety, but then they completely forget that their managers also have the same psychological needs. This is particularly true at many fast-growing tech companies, where managers may be in leadership positions for the first time in their careers and may feel less safe.
"People often think about what your boss does to create safety for you, but to manage up you need to think about what creates safety for them. What are the areas that make them feel upset and unsafe? A lot of the things you do to manage down are things you should do to manage up."
—Matt Greenberg, Reforge CTO
Asking your manager questions about their decisions or strategy can create situations that put their feelings of trust and safety at risk. While these questions can prompt valuable discussions if your manager feels safe, it's possible to ask the same question in a way that conveys criticism and a lack of trust in their judgement, which will ultimately make them feel less safe and prompt defensiveness. Conversely, if your manager does not fully trust you, they may hesitate to fully share details with you. By being clear about your intentions and paying attention to your manager's emotional response, you can build a more trusting relationship with your manager.
Honing your sense of empathy on whether your manager feels safe can help to avoid the missteps that undermine trust. For instance, Reforge EIR Valerie Wagoner shared an experience where a mismatch in brainstorming styles was actually rooted in what her manager needed to feel psychological safety:
"Personally I'm someone who brainstorms out loud and reasons through problems with people publicly. So I really learned the hard way once when I didn't have enough empathy for a manager who preferred to work through problems privately and then only convey high-confidence ideas or decisions in larger groups. There were a couple instances when I brought up more ambiguous and potentially controversial strategic questions in front of other team members, and I ended up losing some trust that I needed to rebuild later. By having more empathy up front, I would not have broken my manager's feelings of trust and safety."
—Valerie Wagoner, Reforge EIR, GoPay CGO
Packaging Problems In A Way That Makes Helping Easy
Good people managers avoid giving their reports poorly-defined problems that are beyond what they can handle. Similarly, good upward managers package problems in a way that takes their managers' constraints (e.g., lack of time, competing priorities) into account.
Importantly, this doesn't mean you should never bring problems to your manager. But your approach to difficult situations can make the difference between effective and ineffective upward management. When faced with a difficult situation, effective upward managers package the problem in a way that makes it easy for their manager to provide help.
Reforge CTO Matt Greenberg uses the metaphor of monkeys and rocks to illustrate the differences between effective and ineffective approaches to upward management.
"Imagine your friend asks you to help them move a large rock. They tell you where it is, where it needs to go, they can't lift it themselves but with your help it can easily be carried. These types of problems are easy to say yes to. The mental work has already been done and the ask is simple. Some people seem to create rock problems. Whenever you work with them the lift is pretty straightforward. They package the problem up so that you can get it done fast. Their projects get done quickly and the team always feels focused.
Now, imagine your friend asks you to babysit their monkey for a week. Take care of a monkey? This is an insanely unbounded problem. I'm not equipped to care for a monkey. What do they eat? Where do they go to the bathroom? Do they bite? Monkey problems are filled with the unknown. They could be incredibly large. They are almost never small. Around every corner is a trap. When you take a problem to a friend or a coworker, how often is it a monkey problem?"
—Matt Greenberg, Reforge CTO
When facing a difficult situation, the monkey-vs.-rock framing can be a helpful way to think about managing up. Managers can easily provide help with rock situations; however, presenting leadership with monkey problems places bigger demands on their time and mental bandwidth. You can frame problems in ways that make it easier for leaders to help you by doing the following:
- Concisely give your audience the context they need to understand the problem: You do not want to give an overwhelming amount of unstructured detail, but you want to provide enough information that your audience understands the context (including any areas where you may be missing context) and how you reached your recommendation.
- Frame your request in a way where it's obvious what they need to do: Don't ask your leaders to take on the full cognitive burden of understanding the situation, thinking through the set of options, and picking the best one. Instead, make it clear what your request is and why. In situations where you truly don't know what to do next, you can still provide helpful framing and specificity around what would be helpful to you (e.g., "I would like help structuring my approach to this problem" is better than "I don't know what to do and need help").
- Constrain the scope of your ask: It is easier to say yes to something actionable in the short-term than an ill-defined long-term commitment.
- Establish a shared language for framing problems: Despite your best efforts, sometimes you will encounter monkey problems that you are just not equipped to transform into rocks yourself. In these situations, you should not avoid escalating to your manager, which could allow the problem to grow even larger and more complex. Instead, you can effectively manage up by framing the problem for your leader as a monkey problem where the specific help you need is around synthesizing and prioritizing it. Using this language and context can help your manager know what type of support would be most useful in the situation.
Tactics for overcoming common managing up challenges
Even after undergoing this mindset shift toward your manager, there are still some common challenges you will face in managing up. People who struggle to manage up, but are otherwise high achievers and team players, are often making a combination of three common mistakes:
- Right idea, wrong situation: They don't realize they're missing context, resulting in "unknown-unknowns"
- Right idea, wrong time: Their drive to solve the problem "right now" backfires (Right idea, wrong time)
- Right idea, wrong delivery: They get caught off-guard by significant stylistic differences
Consistently making these mistakes can damage your credibility and erode trust, making it more difficult to manage up in the long term.
Managing Up Challenge 1: Right Idea, Wrong Situation
Reforge EIR Valerie Wagoner encountered this situation earlier in her career as VP International at Credit Karma. She was presenting the UK market entry strategy to several CXOs, but the proposal was falling flat. Only at the end of the presentation did she learn a crucial piece of missing context:
"Towards the end of the meeting, one executive asked a question that made me realize that I was operating with outdated context, specifically context regarding acquisition targets we had been looking at. I was not aware of the recent major shift in context, and I thought, 'Oh my God, this completely changes the entire equation.' My entire pitch would have been very different, and we would have had a productive conversation about the strategy, rather than me talking for an hour about things that were clearly not the right recommendation at all."
—Reforge EIR Valerie Wagoner
In this situation, the lack of context resulted in Valerie encountering "unknown unknowns" and undermined her ability to effectively influence company leadership, potentially damaging her credibility. Due to the nature of M&A, Valerie's manager had not been able to share that information with her beforehand.
When managing up, you will frequently encounter situations where you don't have the complete context, including situations where leaders can't share key information with you. Fortunately, you can mitigate the impacts of this information asymmetry by identifying the key assumptions underlying your recommendations, which gives your audience an opportunity to clarify and correct misalignments. Reforge EIR and Interim CMO Joanna Lord recommends the following approach when presenting recommendations upward:
- Clearly articulate the assumptions and context you are operating from.
- Ask your audience if any of these assumptions are incorrect or if anything has changed.
- Ask if there is any additional information or missing context that would impact the recommendation.
- If there is additional context that affects the recommendation, verify whether you should take time to rework the recommendation, or whether you should still move forward.
Many people worry that by acknowledging that they don't have all the context, they'll undermine their credibility. However, if you have done your homework to gain all of the context you can, you can actually build trust and credibility by identifying your key assumptions, acknowledging where your information may be incomplete, and giving your audience an opportunity to fill in any gaps.
"You'll never know everything that's in your CEO or boss's head. They may very likely be working off an entirely different set of assumptions than you. Part of our job is to ask questions and make sure we're all working off the same information to the best of our ability. The other important part is to make sure that we are aligned on expectations and results, irrespective of what information we might be privy to. This takes real work and effort but is required for success, especially in these really fast-paced environments.
— Joanna Lord, Reforge EIR, ex-CMO Skyscanner, ClassPass
Managing Up Challenge 2: Right Idea, Wrong Time
The second common managing up mistake is when pushing too hard to solve problems "right now" backfires. This is a case of "what got you here, won't get you there." Early in your career, pushing to solve problems quickly is often rewarded. However, as you progress, the problems you encounter become more complex and often require support from multiple stakeholders. There is an inflection point where the tendency to push hard and move quickly becomes a liability to you and your manager.
"I had been quite hard-charging, and eventually my manager told me 'Even if you're right, you're making my life harder because you push all these things in my face. What's the difference between doing it now versus doing it after our other priority?' I realized that there were a lot of things going on that I didn't see and I realized I had to be patient."
—Dor Levi, Reforge EIR, ex-EVP Lyft
In situations where you're also missing context, the urge to solve problems right now can lead to worse decisions, ultimately damaging your credibility and eroding trust. When he was VP of Engineering at Credit Karma, Reforge CTO Matt Greenberg encountered a situation where his push for a superior technical solution led to a major conflict between the Engineering and Finance organizations that his manager had to spend political capital to resolve. The Finance organization felt like a cumbersome solution was being forced on them, so they escalated to the CFO. The CTO (Matt's manager) had to step in and ended up supporting the worse technical implementation in order to resolve the conflict.
"Earlier in my career, I would see problems in the organization. I'd think I was smart and had reasonable solutions, and I would push hard to fix them—but I would rarely see the ramifications of that and it would splash back on my leader. In this situation, I thought I was managing up and pushing for the right outcome for the company, and I was really annoyed with my boss afterward. In retrospect quite a bit later, I realized I was the cause of all of it. I did not tee up my boss to be successful. What did I do wrong? At no point did I put myself in my boss's shoes."
—Matt Greenberg, Reforge CTO, Former VP Engineering Credit Karma
This failure mode is closely tied to the failure mode of missing context. In the above situation, Matt did not have the CTO's perspective on the political issues at play; pushing hard for Finance to adopt a new system exacerbated existing issues.
While it can be difficult to be patient when you see people making the "wrong" decision, it can ultimately be less costly than pushing for the right decision at the wrong time. Patience can yield two major benefits:
- It gives you time to collect context and appropriately prioritize the situation. By "letting the fire burn" for a day or week, you can gain useful information by seeing if the problem is still urgent or if it has shifted.
- You can lay the groundwork to be more effective in the future. Matt explains this approach using the analogy of tai chi vs. kung fu: "Instead of directly attacking a situation, what you really need to do is slowly position everything so that when it is really time to do something, just a light push gets you where you want to go."
Managing Up Challenge 3: Right Idea, Wrong Delivery
The final common mistake is when people fail to tailor their communication to their leaders' preferred styles. Many people fall into the trap of thinking these style preferences are unimportant or secondary to substance. However, understanding why different stakeholders have certain style preferences is key to building empathy and making effective arguments. As Reforge EIR Dor Levi notes:
"Style typically has deeper roots. Someone who wants a lot of context may be really in love with the product, whereas someone who needs the numbers up front may have been burned in the past. To find out someone's style, I observe a lot, and I try to get historical context into specific events that could have shaped this behavior or trigger."
—Dor Levi, Reforge EIR
When you're presenting recommendations upward, understanding your audience's perspective is an essential piece of preparation. Stylistic preferences—far from being trivial—are often reflections of how your audience processes information, what types of information they value, and how they make decisions. Your presentation style can also reinforce (or rebut) your audience's pre-existing perceptions of you. As Dor Levi notes,
"It's essential to adjust your communication to take into account the bias or perspective someone has about you. This is an important part of understanding your audience. If someone thinks you are too 'artistic' and not analytical enough, you need to know that before you communicate with them so then you can adjust your style to combat their perception."
Before presenting recommendations to your leaders, it is important to understand your audience's needs and what style will set you up best for success. Key elements to understand include:
- Preferred types of data: Understand and use the types of data that resonate most with your decision-makers. Do they want to see quantitative data and charts? Screenshots and high-fidelity mocks of the product? Customer feedback quotes?
- Framing: What's the right level of detail for your audience? Do they want a 35,000ft view or a 10ft view? Do they expect you to begin your argument from first principles, or will they want to jump directly to the recommendation?
- Format and Preparation: Should you present your recommendation in a 1:1, a group leadership meeting, or a more public format? What type of preparation is needed beforehand (e.g., a "meeting before the meeting", sending out a pre-read and setting aside time at the beginning of the meeting to review it)?
Understanding these needs requires additional preparation, especially in larger organizations where you may need to manage up but don't already have a close relationship with the audiences, such as skip-levels or meetings with different departments. In these situations, it can be helpful to have a pre-meeting with someone close to the key stakeholder to learn their preferences and surface any likely questions or surprises beforehand.
"At Lyft, whenever I was presenting to the CFO, I would always try to schedule a prep meeting with his second-in-command. Pregaming the content with someone close to the key decision maker helped me predict any blind spots I might have by helping me look at it from the other person's perspective. This helped me learn what would be a surprise or what wouldn't fit their mental model in advance. I would do this with almost every big presentation."
—Dor Levi, Reforge EIR, ex-EVP Lyft
In addition to researching these audience needs beforehand, Dor recommends debriefing with your manager afterwards to continue calibrating your presentation style. Some debriefing questions to ask include whether the level of detail was appropriate and if any parts of the presentation particularly resonated or fell flat.
Managing Multiple Stakeholders' Stylistic Preferences
As you progress in your career, you will begin having to manage up to broader groups of stakeholders, including leaders outside of your reporting line. Presenting to broader groups can be especially challenging when different audience members have divergent style preferences. One stakeholder may want a discussion to begin from first principles, while another may want you to get straight to your recommendation. Before presenting to these new audiences, if you are not able to get feedback from the new stakeholders themselves, seek feedback from your manager and from peers who have a better understanding of your audience. Rehearsing with someone who can predict stakeholders' questions and objections can help you avoid being caught off guard in the presentation.
As organizations grow, formally codifying these stylistic preferences can help the whole team communicate better at scale. Codification may start small with the creation of personal operating manuals, or it may extend to instituting new practices like formalizing product reviews and clarifying expectations for team touchpoints. As Reforge EIR Valerie Wagoner notes:
"'Style' can help establish a common language that's more scalable. If certain leadership teams process information better in certain ways or always ask certain types of questions, then that should be incorporated into your 'style.' However, it is CRITICAL to then codify this and share it with others. Tell leadership directly that you're observing that certain style aspects are helpful, ask them if they want to codify that, and then share those formal expectations with others around the company. Every individual who's managing up to the same executives having to go through the same learning curve is incredibly slow and expensive for the company. So invest the extra 10% of effort to make it 100x more scalable for yourself and your colleagues."
—Valerie Wagoner, Reforge EIR, GoPay CGO
You may have to apply your upward management skills to codify and institutionalize these practices. Fortunately, you can build momentum for these changes by:
- Taking an empathy-driven approach: Understand that your manager also wants more efficient decision making and communication, but they may be busy and removed from the day-to-day costs.
- Presenting a rock problem instead of a monkey problem: Instead of telling your manager that there is a problem (stakeholders' disparate and undocumented communication styles lead to inefficiencies) and you need their help, offer a solution and build momentum by piloting it on your team first. Once you have identified a solution and gathered evidence for it on your team, you have made it easy for your manager help you codify and scale your solution across the organization.
Managing up is crucial to crossing the next career canyon
As you continue to progress in your career, managing up will grow to be one of the most important skills you need to master (if not the most important). For many of us, our career aspirations point toward an executive leadership role in a VP or C-level capacity, and nobody becomes an executive without knowing how to manage up.
Even at the most successful companies, CEOs aren’t renowned for their people management skills, but instead for their company leadership. Ultimately, the role of an executive is to manage up to the CEO at all times. This skill takes years to master; therefore, starting earlier helps you cross later career canyons even faster.
Part of the maturity an IC or mid-level manager needs to develop is to prepare for these future roles by giving up the notion of needing to be "managed down." As you gain seniority, it is increasingly likely that your manager will not have the bandwidth or skillset to tell you what to do, how to do it, or how to handle challenges that come up. Instead, they will rely on your ability to manage up to help them solve increasingly complex problems. Ultimately, as we take this upward management toolkit and practice it in the world, we are building mastery towards the skills that will help us cross the career canyon toward becoming an executive. Building mastery here will accelerate your career immensely and expand the landscape of what you can accomplish.