You’ve heard the term “managing up.” But do you know what it means?
Some articles, like this one from The Wall Street Journal, say managing up is “all about making your boss’s job easier.” That sounds nice, but really? Is that what’s going on here?
Others, like this one from Harvard Business Review, define managing up as “being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company.”
Have any of these people ever tried to manage up? So many of these definitions start with the assumption that the boss is always right. You just need to find out what makes them tick to earn their trust – then all will be right in the world.
I’ll pause while you laugh.
In a healthy system, managing up is about developing an approach to creating deeper trust with your supervisor. Remember, trust is a “confident relationship to the unknown,” as Rachel Botsman, a renowned expert on the topic, defines it.
So, I think managing up involves helping your leaders navigate the risk of uncertainty.
That means when you believe they’re wrong, you tell them so.
Instead of managing up, though, many people simply “manage around.” They change strategies, goals, processes, and projects to manage around the idiosyncrasies of a particular boss.
Managing around frequently happens in marketing and content. Why? It may have something to do with that old trope, usually attributed to Hewlett Packard co-founder David Packard, that “marketing is too important to leave to the marketing department.”
This sentiment has caused many marketing practitioners to lament that people throughout the business think they have two jobs – their own and marketing. It seems everyone has an opinion on where the marketing and content strategy is going astray.
And when those opinions come from the boss, many people change processes to “manage around” them.
Last month I worked with a content team at a mid-sized tech company that faced a difficult challenge. Everything the team created had to go through the CEO for approval. Everything.
But that wasn’t the biggest problem.
When reviewing the assets, the CEO frequently changed campaign direction or introduced last-minute design, creative, or even strategy changes. At any given moment, priorities, timing, or entire marketing campaigns could be upended.
But, if you can believe it, even this wasn’t the biggest problem.
The biggest problem arose from the way the marketing and content team adapted their processes to manage around the CEO. Instead of brainstorming ideas for great content or marketing campaigns, they simply created output that they knew the CEO would approve.
This approach let them deliver within the set timelines, and the CEO felt happier with the output and timing. But the content marketing team felt demoralized.
If you think of managing up as “all about making your boss’s job easier,” you could argue they’d done it. But they certainly weren’t making the company more successful, adding value, or helping their boss navigate the risk of uncertainty.
How could the team feel any confidence in their work when they’d designed it to pass through a flawed approval process?
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There are only two ways to solve the challenge of managing around the boss.
The first option is to acknowledge that you’re managing around an executive and build in the expectation that the exec’s word is final.
Sometimes, detailed input from a visionary business leader does add value – Steve Jobs’ contributions at Apple come to mind. That creative and design management style worked for Apple because the entire business accepted and expected that projects would end up the way he wanted them.
If you want or need to design an approval process where the CEO or other senior leader may edit, change, or upend entire projects, try to move their input closer to the beginning of the project lifecycle to mitigate creative and design rework.
Make sure everyone understands that the process was built to accommodate specific, required input from that leader. This way, you remove contradictory or false expectations about timelines and results. You can then give your team permission to push boundaries while acknowledging that the final product may end up the way the boss wants it.
The second way to solve the challenge of managing around the boss is to stop doing it. In other words, confront any false expectations that resulted from the “managing around” approach.
At the tech company I mentioned, the CEO became accustomed to contributing to and approving the marketing output when the company was much smaller. As the company grew, the process remained unchanged. Approving marketing work became a task the CEO had to do, but not one he felt was a core part of his role.
He needed someone to manage up and tell him the process no longer fit. They no longer needed his input and approval on every content or marketing project.
So, they changed the process to give the CEO visibility into every stage of content, campaigns, and other initiatives. He can check in on and comment on ideas. He can view and comment on projects as design concepts. And he can contribute new ideas at the ideation stage.
If you think of this solution in RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) terms, the CEO gets consulted and informed at every stage of the content lifecycle. But he’s no longer responsible for the final approval of content or campaigns.
With the new system in place, he inserted himself into the marketing process less frequently. This change allowed the marketing team to understand and weigh the implications of changes at each content stage. It also freed the content team from needing to design around the CEO’s idiosyncrasies without ignoring his input.
Business management guru Peter Drucker once wrote, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Managing up is helping your boss understand the things that don’t need doing.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute