6 tips for 'managing up' and what that even means

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How Often Should You Be Managing Up?

Bless her heart, (you like to think) your manager tries. She (probably?) has so much on her plate that it's only natural for the whole "manage my employees" thing to slip between the cracks in her Outlook calendar. Surely, you must have simply missed those meeting invites to discuss her specific expectations of you and your priorities. There's definitely a to-do somewhere on her whiteboard to discuss your role within the company and hash out your ideas for its strategy.

Or, you know, you're supposed to just take an educated guess at the best ways to do your job and contribute to the company. You're supposed to work in a vacuum, with only the office ficus tree to consult with and that triple espresso to motivate you.

That's no way to work. Chalk up your hands, replace that espresso with electrolytes and prepare for some heavy lifting. Here's how to help your boss carry her weight, or how to "manage up:"

1. Establish ground rules. Get a few things straight with your manager, ideally when you're just beginning the work relationship, says Bruce Tulgan, author of "It's Okay to Manage Your Boss" and founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a management and workplace research firm. He suggests you clarify the following big-picture items: "how you're going to stay in dialogue, how you're going to set priorities on a day-to-day basis and how you're going to monitor, measure and document your performance."

An open dialogue is key, he says, so get specific. Decide how frequently the two of you will check in and for how long. Then agree that you'll both prepare to discuss your priorities. Oh, and commit to each other that you'll actually show up for these meetings. No sly, last-minute canceling or continually rescheduling meetings until they mysteriously disappear into the Outlook ether. Say it with Tulgan: "We're going to actually make those meetings like we make our kids birthday parties – we're going to show up."

2. Get specifics. "Could you take care of this?" – the six-word request that's as vague as it is infuriating. Wait, how, exactly, do you want me to accomplish this? By what time on what day? Do you want me to stop doing that other thing so I can start doing this? "However you want," "as soon as possible" and "uh" are not good enough answers from your boss.

"When managers don't spell out expectations, they think they're empowering you, but a lot of times it's false empowerment," Tulgan says. "You end up wasting a bunch of time and doing things wrong."

To save time and second-guessing, Tulgan suggests outlining the exact steps you plan to take to complete the project and then running them by your boss before beginning. Don't worry about being high maintenance – you already did your homework and are simply asking for her blessing. "You're not asking the manager to spoon-feed you," he says. "You're actually spoon-feeding the manager."

And as for that ambiguous deadline: "Never accept 'as soon as possible,'" Tulgan says. Get an exact date, and confirm the shuffling you'll have to do with your other priorities. Speaking of which ...

3. Check your priorities. f you're hazy on the best use of your time, Tulgan suggests keeping a time log for a few days and sharing it with your manager. Give her a detailed look at what you spend your time on so she can confirm you're prioritizing tasks the way she wants you to.

4. Create standard procedures. Remember how you're clarifying specific steps and deadlines on a project-by-project basis? Similarly, disclose exactly how you plan to handle common recurring issues and requests.

In this situation, however, you can decide on the procedure once and then follow it – without nagging your boss for approval – in each recurring situation. "Take the initiative, and write out your own step-by-step-operating procedures, and run them by your boss," Tulgan says.

5. Lead up. John Baldoni, author of "Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up" and chair of the leadership development practice at N2Growth, a global leadership consultancy, says "managing up" is tactical, while "leading up" is strategic.

So you're set on getting your work done efficiently, setting priorities and establishing a working relationship with your boss. But when you lead up, you also have to think big. "Your perspective is that of a CEO," Baldoni says. "You're looking at the holistic point of view for what your department does and how it relates to the rest of your firm."

To lead up, you must be a student of the company and learn as much about it as you can. What is its vision? What is its mission? What are its strategic goals? Ideally, your manager should fill you in on these important points, but Baldoni says they often skip the important explanation.

6. Share your ideas. Once you're a "big-picture thinker," as Baldoni puts it, and have established his three Cs necessary to become an influential leader – competency, credibility and confidence – you can start sharing your ideas. In addition to establishing the exact steps for handling a recurring issue, for example, you can consider why the crisis continues to happen. And what impact does it have on not only the team, but the company overall? How does the problem derail your business's goals?

By thinking like a CEO and knowing the context of the issue and how it's typically handled, maybe you can come up with an idea to prevent the problem from happening once and for all. Or, as Baldoni puts it, you can become an "ideator."

Of course, spreading this genius idea without making your boss feel threatened or appearing promotion-hungry takes some tact. Baldoni's advice? Educate – don't intimidate. "If I say to you, 'I'm going to do your job for you,' that's a threat," he says. "If you say, 'Let me share some ideas with you,' that's fine."

But he points out that you should speak up nonetheless.

"You don't have to hide your light under a bushel," Baldoni adds. "You're an ambitious person – someone who wants to achieve – and that's a good thing."

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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