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18 Tips That Helped Me Manage Up
How one can manage their manager to position themselves for vertical progress
You need to manage up to move up.
“Managing up” means the activities you undertake to manage your manager’s expectation (and the expectation of leadership who you’re accountable to).
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Regardless of how stellar a resource is, if a manager isn’t convinced of their value, vertical progression will be stifled.
So, how do you manage up?
Let me start with a cliché: Every manager is different.
It’s tough to come up with a universal set of laws that would work across the board.
Ex: Some like to micromanage while others are motivational coaches at heart. Some like to dish out “tough love” while others are kind-hearted but operate at a distance.
Luckily, it usually doesn’t take more than a few weeks of working together to figure out the archetype of your manager. The challenge following that is to adapting yourself accordingly.
In this article, I’m going to share quick tips that helped me over the years that allowed me to move from an entry-level PM to a Director at Bayt.com.
Before I start, a disclaimer:
You probably won’t be able to apply all these tactics. This may be because your manager is of a different nature or the culture doesn’t allow for it. I was fortunate to have supportive management for the most part. So, in case you’re operating under someone who is overtly difficult, some of these many not apply.
Yes, many of these aren’t specific to just product managers. They are applicable for pretty much any role out there.
Here we go:
1- Form a bond.
Your manager is a human being. They have emotions, desires, ambitions, likes-dislikes just like the rest of us. This seems obvious, but many times, we mentally hardwire ourselves to remain distant from them. This creates an “Us vs. Them” mentality.
The focus often becomes “how can I keep myself out of trouble/get a raise” instead of “how can I partner with my manager to produce wins for the company.”
To achieve this, you need trust. To create trust, you need to humanize your relationship.
I invested a lot of time with my managers just to get to know them. No, you’re not aiming to become besties. You’re trying to be effective partners.
What did this look like?
Lunch conversations. Discussions around pop culture, food, sports, the weather, our hobbies and occasionally geo-political current affairs. Walking out of office together at end of day discussing weekend plans. Of course, my managers were super busy professionals, so these would be short but warm interactions. (kudos to them for being generous with their time)
No, such bonding doesn’t happen overnight. However, once that openness is established, communication both ways becomes far more easier.
In scenarios where my supervisor was a “tough cookie”, I’d often go to them asking for “advice” and “opinions” (which they didn’t mind offering). That softened the formalism & paved the way for casual conversations.
2- Priority sync
Priorities shift rapidly, especially at startups. This was frustrating for me in the start. I would start on an initiative and then was asked to focus on something else mid-way.
However, I learned that while some of the unpredictability could be managed better, it was natural for business dynamics to change fast.
Thus, I liked to align on the highest priority item for the week in my 1:1 calls with my manager and cut/reduce the fluff.
When my top priority didn’t align with their expectation, we’d discuss if I had to pivot.
I would also learn what their priority was to see what help I could offer.
3- Handling Disagreements
Disagreement & debate is a healthy sign as long as egos don’t get involved.
I learnt a lot about how to handle disagreements from my manager. When I’d describe a contrarian view, he wouldn’t interrupt me half way. He’d give me space to complete my train of thought & share my evidence. He would also ask revealing questions to gain clarity.
I started mirroring his technique. This ensured we heard each other out. But yes - in the end, the manager would call the shot and I would respect that.
I’d agree or commit. Or disagree and commit. But that didn’t remove me from giving my 100% even if I wasn’t convinced of the path we had chosen. I learned that’s what teamwork really is.
4- Raise red flags early
When something went south (e.g. a customer had an episode with the data) or I was not going to hit my quarterly numbers, I informed my manager early.
It wasn’t a desperate plea for help, although I would value his/her advice.
here’s what happened & why
here’s what actions I’ve taken so far
here’s what I intend to do next
I learned that if I kept my manager apprised about the situation early, I gave them space & time to help me out of a jam if it came down to that. Telling them too late created frustration.
5- Get back before they follow up
I had established a rule for myself when I was delegated work.
If I share an update before my manager follows up, I’m showing the right level of agency.
So, before the end of day, I’d try emailing my manager about where I was on the task they assigned me + ETAs.
I’ve noticed over time that when they followed up with me first, it was usually triggered by vertical pressure. Thus, it was important for me to make sure my manager looked great in front of his own manager.
6- The Weekly Memo
I developed a habit to prepare a weekly memo for my manager that captured the following:
Where we stand (business goals)
What went well & what didn’t
Status of initiatives in play & priorities
Here’s what the memo looks like:
This weekly memo helped a lot in ensuring my manager didn’t have to jog his memory to recall what I and my team were up to. He’d just reference the memo for the week and ask questions/course-correct me asynchronously.
Having said that, every manager has a different appetite for communication. Some may require constant updates. Others will want a summary. A Product Manager needs to learn to adapt their cadence according to their expectation.
I’ve found the easiest way to convince a manager that you’re ready to move up is to do some work that role would currently be expected to do.
Thus, I’d be curious about things my direct supervisor was working on. If there was something I felt I could add value to, I would self-volunteer to take off some of the things of his/her plate.
Yes, I already had a full workload. But I was also aware that these side projects, when completed, would earn me a lot more visibility.
8- Mirror the way they measure performance
For every initiative I was working on, I’d learn how they felt about it and what metrics they would look at. I would have some back and forth if I didn’t agree with the chosen metric (see point 3) but would settle on a commonly agreed KPI.
Ex: I might launch a feature and track adoption while he/she way want extent of utilization as the core metric.
This made sure we celebrated together.
9- Market upwards
Visibility doesn’t just mean that you’re present in meetings with upper management. I needed skip-level managers to see my work.
I worked with my manager to engineer opportunities where I could present results & initiatives to them directly on a regular basis. It was nerve-wracking for sure but it instilled confidence in me when it came to the major leagues.
Since I had that “visibility”, the higher management once worked out a deal to retain me when I got an external offer. Senior execs would also call me in to assign me small research projects or presentations because of that trust.
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10- Soliciting advice
When I needed advice, I opted for one of the following three ways to ask for it, in the priority below:
I’m handling X already in this manner. Does that work?
I’m thinking how to handle X. Here are some options. Thoughts?
I’m running a blank on X. I need help.
Of course, I’d exercise option 3 in very rare scenarios.
The first 2 options were my go-tos. It was important for my manager to see the homework I had already put in. This allowed them to ask deeper questions and share informed advice to set my direction straight, as opposed to hand-hold me.
11- Build momentum before a big ask or proposal
When I needed budget approval, or a hiring requisition or had to discuss a strategic choice, I would frontload the conversation with a series of achievements & positive outcomes to set the mood right and gain some momentum.
Also, I would try my best not to pose my ask as a problem, rather an opportunity.
For example, if I was asking to let me hire a new content marketer, I would show how past content items had been performing and helping fuel acquisition. With those wins on the table, I’d segue into the conversation of scaling the activity & then developing a case for expanding the team.
It was kind of like a “give before you get” routine. When you’ve already excited them about past outcomes, the ask becomes easier.
12- Ask for feedback.
This is harder than it sounds. When you put yourself out there, you need to be ready to hear things you might not like.
Managers, especially those who have a soft demeanor, can be unsure about how to filter & shape unsolicited feedback. However, I observed that when I asked for it myself, I was implicitly giving them more license to talk freely.
It gave me perspective on what they were thinking. It didn’t come without surprises though. There were things I thought would be super appreciated but were critically analyzed. But I’m happy I asked - all that contributed to my learning.
For example, I started a series of guest lectures once at my company. My manager appreciated the effort but didn’t agree with how I was sourcing and whetting them and thought the wrong speaker could do more harm than benefit the team. It was very insightful feedback.
13- Be prepared for ad-hoc meetings.
Managers have busy schedules. Sometimes, even with scheduled 1:1s, they’d get locked into back-to-back calls for several hours on a stretch. It was difficult for me to predict when I’d get time with them.
But I’d keep my meeting plan ready at all times - a Notion doc with all the questions and updates I need to share with them. So, if they even had 15 mins, I was able to squeeze a 30 min 1:1 in it because I knew the beats I needed to hit.
To reduce a 1 hour meeting to 30 minutes,
spend 15 minutes preparing for it.
How was the plan ready beforehand? Whenever I encountered a questions I needed advice or feedback on during the week, I’d immediately log them in my 1:1s docket. The meeting plan would keep growing organically.
I cannot stress enough on how important it is to prepare for your meeting with the manager. I’ve seen how quickly they spot issues or flaws in your wireframe, business logic or flowchart. If I didn’t plug the obvious holes, I’d be ask to return to the drawing board to give my solution more thought.
14- Negotiate at the right time.
There was one rule that I wanted to abide my: I wasn’t going to be a yes-man. I had to learn to negotiate with my managers & even attempt to “say no” on items that seemed weren’t adding value. (while respecting the final call was theirs)
But here’s the thing: Over the years, I understood that knowing when to negotiate is as important as knowing how to do it.
What do I mean by this?
A manager’s body language, mood, voice & mindset determined what kind of reaction they will have to my pushback. If they had a long day, I’d defer it.
But more importantly, I figured out their body clock. Some managers were most receptive in the morning, others right after they had lunch and so on.
15- Learn to spread the credit.
I observed that my reports would consider the documented or verbal approval of my manager as an achievement. It was a higher form of recognition for them.
I would share significant achievements of my reports and reference them by name. I would also request my manager, at times, to give a shout-out to some on Slack to encourage them.
This helped him/her recognize my efforts on the team’s collective growth and also comforted them about our internal talent pool.
16- Share books, articles, learnings, insights.
I’ve seen how PMs struggle in other companies because they don’t feel “empowered”. My situation was no different. I had to operate in companies where the product culture was primarily top-down with sales-driven roadmaps. It wouldn’t be far off to say that we were operating with the feature factory approach.
However, I knew protesting wasn’t going to win any love.
The best way was to educate everyone around me. I often share interesting podcasts, videos, social posts and documents to give them a window into how I think about about things
This was exceptionally helpful as, over time, they came around and adopted some of those best practices I had been lobbying for and experimented with some others. Moreover, sharing contemporary content (both ways) also allowed me to remain on the same page with my manager when it came to brainstorming discussions.
17- Tag team in calls.
Before going on an important board call or townhall presentation, I’d touch base with my manager individually to ensure were on the same page. It was important that the lion was in my corner.
I’d also try to sense the temperature of opinions by trying to meet with the other primary stakeholders individually wherever possible. If I could somehow eek out what reservations they had in their mind, I would be in a position to proactively address them. Sometimes, I’d request my manager to be my proxy agent in this endeavor.
But once my manager and I were aligned on a specific vision or strategy, we would become like the Rock and Sock connection (famous WWE tag team) in townhalls, board meetings and customer calls.
For example, when my current manager shares a strategic shift in a townhall, I build his argument further and field some of the tough questions. We also “pass the mic” when it comes to our respective fortes, helping each other when the other needs some backup.
We would then have a quick 5-minute reflection sync after the call to discuss how it went, what could have been better and action points moving forward.
18- Hand off shareable artefacts.
I realized early on that just like how I needed to create a strong relationship with my manager, he/she also wanted to do the same with their direct supervisor. Something that really helped my managers was to equip them with things that they could “share” or “present” in their 1:1s that summarized performance, showed off a new web design, a prototype of a feature or a deep analysis of past data.
I would often share such artefacts with them over Slack and email tagged with keywords so that they could fetch it easily. Here’s an example of a graphic I might share with him:
Managing up is more of an art than a science. The core idea behind managing your manager is to learn your discipline in depth and adapt good judgement.
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