Managing up is doing whatever you can to make your manager’s job easier by essentially managing your manager. It's a critical skill for DevRel success.
Have you ever watched The Intern with Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro? If you haven’t, it’s a must see—highly recommended. It's also a great example of managing up.
In the movie, Ben (De Niro) is hired as a senior intern. Ben is assigned to Jules (Hathaway), the CEO and Founder of Above the Fit. Jules thinks it hilarious, and unnecessary, to have an intern.
Ben does a variety of different things to help Jules realize that he can make an impact on her life and business. He catches her driver drinking from a brown paper bag, and asserts himself to be her driver for the day ensuring that her life isn’t at risk. Each day that Ben drives Jules he gets closer and closer to breaking her I-don’t-need-you barrier. He also provides confidence and insights at just right the time to help Jules make the best decisions for her team, company, and herself. He has his own motives in various use cases and steers Jules towards steps that achieve success where necessary.
There are a variety of reasons you may need to manage up. Here are some that have personally affected me:
I'll walk through each of these.
Often times, there are a variety of projects that require stakeholder approvalm whether it’s for budgetary reasons or overall approval to move forward on a project.
If it’s your responsibility to pitch and obtain approval for this work, it’s going to prove difficult if your stakeholders haven’t been exposed to this work thus far. Essentially, the earlier you can get these initiatives on their radar, the more likely you are to receive easier approvals.
This one is personally a struggle for me. I don’t enjoy conflict so much as I enjoy the end results of conflict. When hard topics are discussed and broken down, impactful changes can be made and implemented to address said topic. I personally have had managers in the past that avoid conflict at every corner. This doesn’t help anyone, especially me, because often times these hard conversations need to take place to move forward.
A manager's role is to protect you and enable you to be most successful. This may mean that they withhold information from you that they think could cause you harm, but may mean you are not exposed to the problems that key stakeholders are concerned about. If you’re not exposed to the problems, it’s hard to showcase solutions that could help solve these problems. Stakeholders are more apt to engage and become involved in your work when you are helping them solve a problem they’re likely working diligently to solve for.
If you have an awesome manager, they’re likely doing this really well. Unfortunately, if you’re not communicating each aspect of your work to your manager, it’s hard for them to pass along the details. And on the flip side, if your manager isn’t sharing this intel, when you approach a stakeholder with a solution, they won’t have the context to know there is even a problem to begin with.
Stakeholders share their problems with their direct reports, who are then responsible to trickle that information down the line to their team. They are also responsible for doing this same thing, but the other direction. Sharing your work with their manager. If there is any gaps in this communication line, the end results can impact your work negatively.
The how part of managing Up is a little bit less straightforward. Depending on your manager, they may see your approach to directly access stakeholders as an act of defiance or going around them to obtain what you need. You must be incredibly cautious about teetering this line, especially if you have a sensitive or micro-managing manager.
I strongly recommend if you think that any of these actions are likely to take place, you have a candid, transparent conversation with your manager. A great manager should know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish and help you get there. Anything less is unfortunately a problematic situation that may require HR intervention.
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you work on managing up.
When I am working on a project, I try to think about multiple angles that my project can solve for.
For example, if I wanted to establish a new community program, I would begin to think about all the needs of my stakeholders and how I could solve for them, even in a small way, within my program. For example, HR may be very interested in a new program that will allow for easier showcasing of their current open roles. Or sales may benefit from a group of folks they can reach out to for deeper intel around a certain audience.
Depending on the project that you are seeking approval for, your stakeholders may vary. Begin to draft a list of stakeholders throughout your company that may appreciate the work you are doing. This can be incredibly difficult to do if your manager is not communicating higher-up stakeholder needs so you may need to get creative. Start looking at OKR’s or goals and breaking down why those goals may exist to begin with.
Often times, the lead stakeholder in various teams or roles can be overbooked or difficult to obtain time with to learn more about their needs and how you can help. However, I have found it more successful to find a key person on the stakeholder’s team to engage with.
Ensure this person is passionate about your work and wants to see you succeed. When you do this right, they will bring the intel they learn from you back to their team and leader (your stakeholder).
Get creative! Every single stakeholder (team, team leader, org, etc.) has their own set of issues they are trying to solve for. If you can tap into their problem space and provide a solution, you hypothetically should always be able to succeed and obtain approvals for your work.
Now that you have outlined who your stakeholders are, who may be your best candidates within those stakeholders teams, and what issues those teams are trying to solve for, you’re ready to create an advisory board for your program!
An advisory board is a group of people who provide insights and ideas into your work and can help make a project or initiative better. It’s their job to advise you on what you are presenting and offer thoughtful feedback and ideas.
In a previous role, I struggled with almost every item in the above mentioned manager drawbacks list. I had to compensate for my manager and that is where this advisory board concept came from. Whether you have an amazing manager or a less-than amazing manager, an advisory board model will bring you success.
I began interviewing various teams and individuals within the team and did an elevator pitch around my work to see what they thought. Those that were excited and began providing ideas and feedback were the folks that I invited into my advisory board. Ensuring that I had at least one candidate from every single team or pillar of the organization.
We met monthly and each meeting we kicked off with an update from myself around our Community + DevRel work. I shared insights from our audiences, so folks in Sales & Marketing had tangible intel to walk away with. I also shared our progress on our roadmap, so other teams, like HR or Finance, had intel around when they could expect to see results from my work.
After I presented, we would round robin and each member would share intel on what their team was up to, their current problem-space as well as how they saw my work helping solve those problems.
This essentially removed every hurdle I had in terms of obtaining approval for my work. I ensured that each member understood what I was focused on, as well as how their team issues could be addressed in this work.
When you’re transparent about your work, including stakeholders and their teams and the issues they are currently trying to solve for, it’s about impossible for someone to not want to see you succeed. When others are cheering you on, your work feels more accomplishable as well as much more exciting.
Your manager will eventually feel this success when they sit in their next stakeholder meeting and someone mentions your work positively, or even better, showcases how your work contributed to their goals. This is how you manage your manager.
This article was originally posted on Devocate, which joined the Common Room family in August 2022. For more developer relations insights and resources, check out the Common Room blog. Learn more about Common Room’s solution for DevRel teams if you're looking for an intelligent community growth platform to educate, empower, and enable your community.