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The Art of “Managing Up”

By Claire Laughlin (1415 words)
Posted in Communication Skills on July 28, 2013

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If you are a frequent visitor to ManagingAmericans.com, your career is probably on an upward trajectory. You are likely looking to expand your knowledge, integrate new skills, and build new networks. And, if you are a growth-minded professional, chances are you are given new responsibilities and opportunities on a regular basis.


But with these opportunities can come stress and overwhelm. One of my clients recently told me about the struggle he was having after being given a “promotion” into being the sales manager for a territory that was twice the size of the one that he was already struggling to manage.  While his boss thought that the promotion was a validation of his ability and something he could clearly handle, my client felt that it was a burden thrust upon him and that he was destined to fail. 


When you are a top performer, you will be offered new opportunities and responsibilities. The challenge occurs when our plates get too full and things start to fall off the edge. This is the classic “Peter Principle” wherein we are promoted up to the point in which we are no longer successful. Does any of this sound familiar? 


But career growth is our own choice and it needs to be managed with commitment and a degree of precision. When you are offered an opportunity for new responsibility it’s important to think it through carefully AND help your manager support you in being successful. 


Take a moment to ask yourself five important questions: 


  1. Is this something I am excited to do? 

  2. Do I have the skills and ability to perform in this new role? If not, what do I need to learn in order to prepare myself? What kind of training is available to me and when can I get it? 

  3. Does this new opportunity align with my other responsibilities? Are there any economies of scale I can achieve by taking on this new responsibility? 

  4. Can I see myself doing this is 5 years? Is this part of my long-term plan? 

  5. What (if anything) can and should I delegate to someone else so that I have the bandwidth to do a good job if I take on this new responsibility? 


Once you have pondered these questions, you’ll have a much better idea about whether or not you are up for the challenge. If your answer is either yes or maybe, be sure to investigate further by scheduling a structured, uninterrupted conversation with your manager or the person to whom you will be reporting. 


Remember that your career growth is important! That is why we tend to say, “yes” to too much and why we allow ourselves to get overwhelmed. Instead of a simple yes, go into the conversation with an optimistic, “can do” attitude and some thoughtful questions. This will ensure that you are seen as a team player, and also as someone with a long-term vision and a commitment to success!



Follow these guidelines to shape a productive conversation: 


1) Set the stage by naming your positive intentions


This will help ensure that your message is seen as collaborative and not resistant or unappreciative.  

  • “I sure appreciate your time. I’d like to be sure I really understand the scope and depth of this new responsibility, because I want this endeavor to be successful for the organization.”


2) Start with the end in mind. 

Ask about what constitutes success from the perspective of the managing supervisor or project sponsors. Be sure to ask about the impact on business results, as well as about specific behaviors rather than vague impacts.  

  • “You’ve asked me to take on this new responsibility. Tell me more about what you envision when you look into the future a year or two. 

  • If this project is very successful, what will we see happening? 

  • How will we measure the success of this project as a business?” 

  • “How will we know if I am performing as expected? 

  • What will you expect to see me doing? 

  • What results will I be getting? 

  • How will I be achieving those results? 


3) Explore the lay of the land. 

It is imperative that you understand the scope of the job, the team culture and dynamics (especially if you are entering into new relationships or reporting structure), and the degree of autonomy and responsibility associated with the position or project.   

  • “Tell me more about the job itself. What kind of a team will I be working with? 

  • Who will I report to? 

  • May I interview the members of that team? 

  • “What am I NOT going to be involved with? 

  • What are the outer boundaries of responsibility associated with this job?

  • “What kinds of relationships will I need to develop in order to be successful?”


4) Get a commitment for support. 

In order to perform successfully in any job, you must have the knowledge, skills, tools and motivation to do so. Presumably, you have the motivation– but don’t forget to assess the other components. Find out more by asking questions like these… 

  • “Tell me about someone who performed this job with great success in the past. What did she or he know? What did he or she do? What tools did she or he use?”

  • And, most importantly, “how can I attain the knowledge, skills and tools described? 

  • What kind of training will I receive? 

  • To whom should I go when I need additional support?”


Taking the time to engage in these in-depth conversations results three distinct advantages. 

  • First, it shows your managing supervisor that you are taking a thoughtful approach to your job and responsibilities. 

  • Second, it provides an opportunity for the manager to think about the issues you raise in more depth. You’d be surprised at how often the questions above prove challenging. All too often, these questions are not thoroughly considered before an offer or new opportunity is extended. 

  • Finally, it ensures that you will not become a casualty of your promotion by taking on new responsibilities for which you are unprepared. 


Managing Up is an art. Many of us shy away from it because we carry the implicit assumption that we should “already know” the answers to our questions. But I encourage you to break through that assumption and do your due diligence. A failed project or job is NOT normally a positive career move. Do your best to ensure your own success by exploring before you commit. 


{#/pub/images/ClaireLaughlin.jpg}Written by Claire Laughlin, Consultant & Trainer, Leadership 4 Design- As an independent consultant and trainer with 20 years of diverse experience, Claire Laughlin brings a passion for improving relationships, experience in management, and a relentless dedication to transformation to all of her work. She is fully committed to working with individuals, teams, and organizations as they learn and cultivate the habits and practices that make their organizational dynamics healthy and highly productive. Claire's experience spans Leadership to Communication Essentials to Project Management & Customer Service and has designed and taught over one hundred courses at over 60 organizations and seven different colleges and universities. In addition to her consultancy work, Claire directs Cabrillo College's Corporate Training Program.


Do you have a question for Claire?  Please visit our Workplace Communication Skills Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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