The Exhaustion and Exhilaration from Managing Up

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We can all improve our supervision experience by learning to manage up. Learn the four skills I learned from different supervisors that helped me grow professionally.

Readers of the blog were recently asked to recommend topics to explore. This topic is from Sarah, who asked to read more about how to manage up and manage across. Thank you Sarah, and I hope this post gives some insight to you and others! This is the second in a two-part series. The first part explores how four lessons I learned from four different supervisors. This post will focus on the dynamics with a supervisor and what lessons you could try to learn from your own supervisor.

I have worked for some amazing bosses. Many helped me see what I was capable of doing when I lacked the right perspective. A couple gave me a chance to prove my increased value to the organization. At least two let me cry in their offices, understanding the feelings of being overwhelmed by the stresses I carried.

This blog won’t be about them.

Instead I am going to focus on me. Ok I’ll talk about them a little too!

For nearly twenty years, I worked as hard as I could trying to figure out what each of these people needed, anticipated their needs, and made sure I was ready before they asked. That is just one example of learning how to manage up.

Dana Rousmaniere, in the Harvard Business Review, believes that having a healthy and positive working relationship with your supervisor – no matter their strengths or faults – makes for a better working environment. But there are always going to be changes to your work environment and supervisors that you may need to address in order to be the most successful.

I will talk about the four times I had to ‘manage up’ in my work environment and what that meant for me professionally. As a first gen professional, I was not very adept at this skill for years. But once I began to see how this style helped me, the department and my supervisor, I knew I was on to something. I hope this will help you as well.

Four Managing Up Revelations

In the past twenty years I have learned a great deal about working for different types of managers. Some of them are chronicled in previous posts. But I did want to highlight what I learned from four of my previous supervisors. Each showed me how to manage up, learn something about myself and the institution, and what I should offer to those I manage. To them I will be forever grateful for their patience as I learned how to make these managing up relationships work!

Donna: Where I learned trust mattered

When I worked for Donna, we were always trying to do more with less. But she was one of the best people – I trusted her and I believe that is where all good supervision relationships should start.

This is pretty much how I started trusting my boss Donna. I hope she never began to regret it while working together!

Throughout my tenure, I believed Donna had my best intentions. She was also very clear about what she had the capacity to do and to learn, given the on-going issues facing our department.

So when I began to integrate assessment into my own work, she gave me few restrictions. When I wanted to expand my assessment to other parts of the department, she got on-board. And when it was time to share my skills with other divisional leaders, she knew it was important for all of us and encouraged me to continue working on my skills.

I always appreciated that she trusted me to learn and teach others a new professional skill. It changed how I saw myself as a professional in student affairs and I believe it started with her.

Donna was always busy. After my previous working environment, I needed more feedback and guidance. So I had to make sure I was on her agenda, if only for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. She taught me that I needed to be responsible for what I needed to do the work, while demonstrating I was becoming the expert. If she had to step in to fix what I assumed to know, we would have issues. But developing trust began with me and I took that to nearly every supervisor I had after.

Thank you Donna for helping me understand that managing up begins with trust!

Dr. Morgan: How I learned how to represent institutional goals

One of the many hats I wore was responsible for first-year programming for undergraduate students. This involved a great deal of time and I was incredibly proud of the work I developed that has since become bigger and better. At the time, I juggled two or three different hats, so I was just doing what I had the time and capacity to do. My supervisor, Dr. Morgan, was one of the first senior administrators who believed in my ability to meet all the work responsibilities. Like, she believed me when I said I could anticipate big picture issues like budgeting and staffing for Orientation. And she believed me when I said I could use the data we had to anticipate our yield before the start of classes.

I used to wear multiple hats but quickly learned that whatever hat I was wearing, I had to be the person thinking of solutions.

What I learned from Dr. Morgan is that I needed to see the big picture. All the tools and data were in front of me, all I needed was the time to consider what it all meant. For most of my career to this point, I simply responded to the picture. But when I began working for her, I knew it was important for me to see the big picture. I knew I had to find solutions to the big picture issues, and she trusted me to do that. Managing up with her involved having a solution, not just pointing out issues and walking away.

Thank you Dr. Morgan for helping me understand the big picture!

Patrick: When it was important to always understand the Why

After I finished my doctorate in 2014, I began looking for full-time work in student affairs and found myself working for a friend I had known for over a decade. The work environment was different, because I didn’t need to work to build trust or understand the scope of my skills. During our time together, I quickly became a trusted colleague.

Our department went through a name change and switched up the staffing model. And in this changing environment, it was more important that ever to understand the why of our organization. The why is the purpose – sure we could describe what services and programs we offered. But the why was helpful to explain our decision-making process. Or what students could and should learn from us. And most critically, the why explained to others to look past the balloons and t-shirts to what students learned from engagement.

The Golden Circle from Start with Why by Simon Sinek, 2009.

In many of our conversations, I began to understand that my role was to help reflect questions of why back to Patrick. In our changing model, with new staff being hired, it was important to understand that what we were doing was a reflection of why we needed to do it. And my role in the department was to be a lateral supervisor and explain the why in his absence. Because I understood the why, I could make bigger picture decisions that would be supported by everyone. The lessons learned from Donna and Dr. Morgan about what we were doing were critical because they set me up to work with Patrick to understand and communicate the why.

Thank you Patrick for helping me understand how to communicate the purpose of the work we did!

Laura: Who taught me to anticipate and drive the narrative

No one has been able to communicate the need to hire competent staff better than Laura. Laura served as the vice president for student affairs at the last college where I worked. She preached it often. She complimented us loudly. And she respected our knowledge.

But this came with high expectations. Learning to manage up with someone with high expectations was a great skill to practice.

The lessons I learned from Donna, Dr. Morgan and Patrick were critical to understand how to manage up to the vice president. What she needed was someone who understood the big picture. She wanted to know we made data-driven decisions, but didn’t need us to regurgitate the data. She wanted access to the data, but trusted us to make it accessible.

Above all, she made it clear that in a calendar year, we should know what and when data is needed. Make it available and make it tell a story. We worked closely in our last year together figuring out how to shape the narrative in our data. I was always proud to have the data she needed on-hand, because it meant that I began to not only understand the needs of our division but also those from within the presidential suite. Anticipating the needs of others before being asked became something I worked to do on a daily basis.

Thankfully, Laura led with her high expectations and complimented us for meeting them!

I believe that we rise to high expectations. Laura showed me that this strong belief in sharing expectations and rewarding those who reach them builds good teams. And for that I will be forever grateful.

Thank you Laura for showing me that strong belief in your team matters!

Skills Worth Building

Learning to manage up can be stressful. In the next post, I will share ways to introduce the skill with your supervisor. And if your staff needs to improve this skill, I’ll share ways to help you explain the skills to those you supervise.

Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals, and those supervising professional staff, for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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