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Mastering the Art of Managing Up

“Managing up” has become a buzzword in recent years, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what it really means, let alone how to do it effectively.

In this article Reforge experts Matt Greenberg, Valerie Wagoner, and Dor Levi define it accurately, emphasize its true purpose, and provide guidance on how to effectively do it so that you and your team can achieve your goals.

Meet The Experts

Matt Greenberg

Matt Greenberg

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.

Valerie Wagoner

Valerie Wagoner

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.

Dor Levi

Dor Levi

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.

What is Managing Up?

At its core, managing up is taking specific actions that not only help your manager bring out the best in you, but help your team and company reach their overall goals.

Managing Up

In practice, people tend to forget about the second half of that statement when they talk about managing up and use it only to influence leadership and gain support for their own projects or ideas.

Even if it isn’t done with malice or ill intent, individuals lose sight of the idea’s true purpose — to elevate your entire team’s goals.

The individualistic mindset often causes people to develop their managing up skill set incorrectly, establishing bad habits that have negative ramifications for their careers.

In this article, Reforge experts Matt Greenberg, Valerie Wagoner, and Dor Levi emphasize that managing up should put your organizational and team goals first, followed by your personal goals. You shouldn’t selfishly manage up to get a project approved if it doesn’t actually impact your company or team goals.

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 refined sense of empathy and prioritize helping their leaders achieve their goals first.

What Managing Up is Not

It’s equally important to define what managing up is not.

To put it frankly, managing up is not the same as being political or escalating problems.

People who lead with this mindset fall into two common failure modes:

  • The Politician
  • The Problem Finder
Managing Up

The Politician

The Politician only tells their manager what they think they want to hear, withholds negative information and feedback, or develops inauthentic relationships with their manager.

Well-intentioned people fall into this mode for two main reasons:

  1. They were rewarded for inauthentic behavior in the past, or
  2. They have been taught these tactics that only drive advancement in their own ideas and goals.

Because The Politicians rely on slightly manipulative behavior like flattery and parroting leadership’s language as a way to make themselves look good or to look out only for themselves, they are only successful with this approach over the short term.

Once they are branded as someone who "tells people only what they want to hear," they lose trust within the organization, and the effectiveness of this approach weakens.

Furthermore, The Politicians can set a negative example for their peers, who may begin to use similar tactics when managing up to their direct managers and leadership.

The Problem Finder

The Problem Finder escalates problems in a way that actually complicates things further for their leaders. While appropriately escalating problems is part of managing up, problem finders tend to immediately escalate every problem they encounter to their manager.

Though often good-intentioned, Problem Finders tend to gain a reputation as problem creators instead of problem solvers, losing their leader’s trust in their ability to tackle more complex and impactful problems, even framing themselves as overly negative.

Conversely, these people may feel like their ideas are not valued and grow increasingly frustrated as they are constantly shut down.

If you want to advance in your career, it’s best to avoid these default failure modes altogether.

Why is managing up important?

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.

As we progress at each stage in our career, 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.

Mastering the art of managing up will accelerate your career immensely and expand the landscape of what you can accomplish.

Managing Up

4 Ways to Manage Up Effectively

We gathered four ways you can start to manage up effectively — align personal and organizational goals, help managers do their best work, always consider your manager’s trust and safety, and package problems in a helpful way.

Managing Up
  1. Align Personal & Organizational Goals

Good people managers find opportunities for direct reports to achieve personal goals like developing new skills or earning a promotion in ways that also deliver results for the company.

Similarly, those who manage up effectively help their leaders achieve personal goals as part of their efforts to drive company goals.

"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, former Reforge CTO

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 really they just know the company strategy, causing them to overlook their manager's personal motivations or values like launching innovative products, being a mentor to junior colleagues, or achieving a healthy work-life balance.

Those who manage upward help their leaders achieve those personal goals in tandem with their efforts to move the organization forward in tandem.

“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, Head of Product, Global at Stripe & Reforge EIR

A word of caution: 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. Although 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.

2. Help Them Do Their Best Work

The best people managers understand what their reports need to do their best work. When it comes time to manage up to your boss, the same approach should be taken.

To manage up like a pro, your relationship should be a two-way street, lined with empathetic communication and respect.

Just like your manager might ask you a series of onboarding questions to understand how they can help you do your best work, you can ask very similar questions. You might even be able to ask the exact same questions and establish a nice dialogue from the beginning.

Valerie Wagoner, Head of Product, Global at Stripe, has collected a few questions that can get that dialogue started:

  • Communication: What are your preferred means of communication?
  • Communication: What type of information do you want to receive on Slack vs. Zoom vs. in person?
  • Scheduling: Are there any days or periods of time that we should avoid scheduling meetings? Or avoid work-related communication?
  • Problems: How do you want to hear about bad news, mistakes, or problems?
  • Problems: Do you want me to tell you about problems immediately or would you rather I try to solve it myself first and propose a solution?
  • Feedback: How do you prefer to give feedback? What about receiving feedback?

As you can see, some of these questions might establish how best you two can work together, but you can also ask about things like career aspirations.

Documenting these answers for your manager and yourself in the form of an "operating manual" can be helpful as teams grow and scale. And it will show your manager that you truly care about building a respectful and empathetic working relationship.

3. Always Consider Your Manager's Trust & 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.

"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, former Reforge CTO

Honing your sense of empathy on whether your manager feels safe can help you avoid the missteps that undermine trust and lead to more problems in the future.

For example, 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, it’s important to be cognizant of the way you ask the question, for it could be in a way that conveys criticism and a lack of trust in their judgment or ideas.

But 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.

4. Package Problems In A Helpful Way

Those who have mastered managing up will package problems in a way that takes their managers' constraints into account, including time, lack of resources, or competing priorities.

Your approach to packaging and communicating difficult situations can make the difference between managing up effectively and just causing more chaos for your manager.

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.

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. Monkey problems are filled with the unknown. They could be incredibly large. They are almost never small. Around every corner is a trap.”

—Matt Greenberg, former Reforge CTO
Managing Up

How to Package Problems Efficiently

Now let’s look at exactly how you can package problems so your manager can provide quick assistance, and avoid the time-intensive monkey problems.

You can frame problems in ways that make it easier for leaders to help you by doing the following:

1. Concisely give your audience the context they need to understand the problem.

Avoid collecting and presenting a ton of unstructured detail or data. Instead, provide enough information so that your audience understands the context and how you reached your recommendation.

Reforge EIR 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, verify whether you should take time to rework the recommendation, or whether you should still move forward.

2. Frame your request in a way where it's obvious what they need to do.

Make your request clear and explain why it is important to take action. In situations where you truly don't know what to do next, you can still provide helpful framing and information around what would be helpful to solve the problem.

When people fail to tailor their communication to their leaders' preferred styles, it’s because they’ve fallen into the trap of believing 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.

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.

"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

Key elements to understand before managing up to your leaders 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)?

3. Constrain the scope of your ask.

It's a lot easier to agree to help with a problem that can be solved in the short-term than an ill-defined long-term commitment.

Remember, when trying to move the rock you know exactly what to do and how long it will take. With the monkey, you could be watching it for a day or a month. Be upfront about the commitment requirements.

4. Establish a shared language for framing problems.

Despite your best efforts, sometimes you will encounter monkey problems that you are just not equipped to tackle.

Communicating that it is a monkey problem and that you need help transforming it into a rock problem is essential in these cases. Don’t avoid talking about it with your manager just because it is a monkey problem as well, it will likely just get worse.

At the same time, instead of immediately running every single problem up the flagpole to your managers, take the time to think about possible solutions and package the problem in an effective way.

Managing Up is Crucial to Advancing Your Career

Managing up is a crucial skill for career advancement and achieving company success. It involves actions that help your manager bring out the best in you and contribute to the overall goals of your team and company. However, it's important to approach managing up with the right mindset and avoid common failure modes.

Managing up is not about being political or escalating every problem you encounter. It's not about telling your manager only what they want to hear or creating unnecessary complications by constantly highlighting problems without offering solutions. Instead, managing up requires empathy, understanding your manager's goals and motivations, and helping them achieve both personal and organizational goals.

To manage up effectively, you should align personal and organizational goals, finding ways to achieve personal growth while also driving results for the company. You should also prioritize helping your manager do their best work by understanding their preferred communication style, providing necessary information, and establishing a respectful and empathetic relationship that builds trust.

By mastering these four strategies, you can effectively manage up, accelerate your career growth, and make meaningful contributions to your organization's success.

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.

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Matt GreenbergValerie WagonerDor Levi