Spreetail Life

3 Key Habits to Build When “Managing Up”

March 12, 2020

Several years ago, I got a harsh wake-up call during an annual performance review. I felt my team and I had crushed our website traffic goals that year, plus we had built a new content production workflow and media escalation plan for our PR team – I took pride in the fact that I rarely had to “bother” my manager and was able to manage everything myself without seeking his advice or approval. How could this review possibly be anything but amazing?  

To my surprise, he shared that while my team and I met our goals, he would like to see us stretch further next year. “Further than these projects?” I asked, listing out all the initiatives my team had owned or collaborated on this past year. I knew he could hear the frustration in my voice.  

He took a beat, sighed, and said “Well, this was a fail. It would have been nice to know about these. Some of these projects have come up in our meeting with the VP and I had no idea our team was involved or what we were contributing. I can’t advocate for your team when I don’t know what you’re doing or how well you’re doing it.”  

Ouch. And he was right. By limiting my communication upward in an attempt to appear self-sufficient and humble, I failed to effectively manage up. I spent the next few weeks reflecting on what my team and our work looked like from different perspectives — how could I consistently give my manager an accurate view? Below I’ve shared the three key habits I’ve worked on over the years to prevent any “surprises” and advocate for my team.  

#1. Don’t waste one-on-one time for a recitation of your project list.  

Hear me out – if your workplace is as fast-paced as Spreetail’s, I get that sometimes the only time you have the undivided attention of your manager is in your one-on-one, and if there are some hot projects you need to make sure your manager knows about and you need to verbally share those, ok. But I have a challenge for you: what if you emailed your manager a running list of ongoing, completed, or upcoming projects the night before your meeting, and then spent the meeting focusing on only the callouts from that list (roadblocks, buy-in, stand-out contributors, specific asks for your manager)?  

Try it. The night before or morning of your next meeting, shoot an email to your manager with your projects and their statuses, and feel free to copy and paste this line: “Here’s a list of my priorities and project statuses – let me know during our one-on-one if you have any questions or concerns about these.” The question I use when qualifying what I should share on this list was, “if I or my team work on a project but my manager doesn’t know about it or its impact, did it actually happen?”  

Besides saving yourself 3-5 minutes of unnecessary monologuing during your precious one-on-one time, you also give your manager a heads up so they have time to process before your meeting. Bonus points! Don’t stress if the first couple of times you still need to refer to your project list during the conversation. Remember you’re helping both yourself and your manager build a new habit.  

#2. Find out what matters to your manager and align your priorities to theirs.  

Seems simple, right? It is in theory, but here’s the true test:  a stranger should be able to walk up to you and your manager on any given day, ask for a stack ranking of your efforts in order of priority, and both of you should give the same answer. A lot of us would struggle with that. It’s not as easy as aligning once a quarter and assuming you’re good-to-go for the next 90 days – things change too quickly for that in an ecommerce organization.  

A simple solution for this is building a question into your conversations with your manager, and it doesn’t have to be a one-on-one: “what’s the most important thing I/my team should be focusing on right now?” Seem a little too desperate? I’ve got a proactively-worded one for you too: “I’ve ranked my ongoing projects and I wanted a pulse check on if I’m prioritizing them the same way you would – could you take a look?” That way, you’ve already done the work of prioritizing, plus it gives your manager insight into how you’re evaluating work and impact.  

If you want a real heavy hitter, try “what’s important to you right now?” This should give you a great view into how your manager is prioritizing their own work, what keeps them up at night, and results they’re driving toward so you can better see where you and your work fit in (and how to show it!).  

#3. Get comfortable with authentic self-promotion.  

You read “self-promotion” and you cringed, right? It seems at odds with Spreetail’s value “practice humility”, but we need to address these two issues in order to continuously develop in our careers: 1) if your manager doesn’t know about it, they can’t provide feedback or related opportunities to you or your team, but 2) if you are a self-promotional zealot sharing only the successes, you can come off as disingenuous. I have an easy template for you to try out which addresses this, and can be used in a chat, email, or in-person update:  

You might be thinking, “this is weird and formal and will be really obvious to my manager.” I hope it is obvious to them! By providing these consistent snapshots of the good and the opportunities to improve, you’re helping them manage the expectations and perception of their direct reports’ successes and challenges in a clear way.  

If you’re interested in reading more about how we prioritize employee engagement at Spreetail, check out our approach to Team Health Checks!

EB Berrick

Sr. People Initiatives Manager

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