It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of product management and neglect managing up. You’re dealing with endless planning meetings, customer calls, bug reports, and Slack alerts that basically take up your entire day!
Many product managers I know end up having to do strategic work at night simply because their days are too jam-packed. But if you don’t spend time managing up, it will be to your detriment when promotion or bonus season comes around.
In this article, we’ll talk about what managing up looks like as a product manager, why it’s important, and provide some tactical tips on how to manage up successfully. By the end of this article, you should feel well-equipped to not only manage up but also understand whether or not you’re succeeding at doing it.
Managing up in the workspace is the practice of exerting influence over how your manager works and collaborates with you, as well as how they ultimately judge your performance.
Although it might seem like managers should be the ones defining this relationship and tracking your performance, managers are juggling many direct reports and some may not be overseeing your work that closely. Taking an active role in nurturing this relationship is key to ensuring that your work doesn’t get ignored or undervalued.
On the positive side, managing up puts you on the shortlist for new opportunities as your work is top-of-mind for your manager.
Why is managing up so important? Aren’t outcomes what matter? The truth is, managing up actually improves your outcomes. Let’s dig in. There are three areas where managing up can help — alignment, risk management, and professional visibility:
In general, alignment with your manager is a force multiplier when it comes to achieving product outcomes.
Your manager sits in a different layer of the organization than you do. That means that they have a different perspective (often more company-wide and strategic) and access to more resources. Communicating with your manager about what you’re working on and knowing that the two of you are aligned ensures that they have your back as you navigate your daily work.
Think about when you have to get engineering on board to do something they really don’t want to do. If someone reaches out to your manager to complain, they’ll know what the situation is and be able to defend your choices. If you can’t get in touch with the right stakeholders, you can tap your manager to reach out to their counterpart in other departments to get the ball rolling.
You can see how aligning with your manager actually helps you do your job better.
Another reason to manage up is to reduce the possibility of different decisions you make coming back to haunt you. Typically, your manager has more experience either in product management or at the organization you’re working at (often, more tenured PMs become managers even if they have less industry experience).
You can leverage your manager whenever you’re about to make a decision that you think carries a higher risk than usual. By involving your manager, you can tap into their experience, use them as a sounding board, and also ensure alignment.
Although most product decisions can be pulled back, many of them can’t. Larger releases or big bets that will take a long time to pan out are all good situations where you should manage up to address risk and get feedback.
Managing risk with your manager is a great way to avoid tough “I told you so” conversations.
And of course, most obviously, managing up is really important to ensure that your achievements are acknowledged and recognized. If you keep your head down and work, focusing on executing one sprint to another, it’s highly possible that your manager has no idea what you’re working on! When a promotion opens up, they won’t know that you’re creating a lot of value for the business if you don’t tell them about it.
In fact, in a prior role, I watched someone else get promoted ahead of me simply because that person was working on an area that my manager was more interested in, even though I had outperformed on a purely metrics-driven level. Tough pill to swallow, but a valuable lesson I’ve taken with me throughout my career.
Professional visibility is key to climbing the career ladder.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that managing up is important, but how can you do so effectively? You definitely don’t want to come off like a sycophant, but you also must sell yourself and your work to get what you deserve.
When thinking about how to approach managing up, it’s a good thought to exercise to view things from your manager’s point of view. Managers are often managing many PMs at any given time, and their attention is spread thin. They care about business outcomes and driving them, but don’t necessarily know tactically how to do so, as they aren’t as close to execution as they used to be.
They want you to take things off their plate so that they have more time to work on more critical things that only they can do. With that in mind, let’s dive into a couple of tactical tips on how to manage up successfully:
It might feel like a chore to talk to your manager once every week, but this is an incredible time for you to really leverage your manager to drive important outcomes in your day-to-day job. Early on in my career, I will confess that my 1:1s often felt forced. I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach them, I didn’t know what my manager wanted, and I went in knowing I would have to spend 10 minutes on small talk. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible!
Now that I’m a manager, I see things from an entirely different perspective. I treat the time as “you” time, where the expectation is that I talk to my direct report about anything on their mind. It could be personal, professional, or somewhere in between. But it’s time that I set aside to ensure that at least once a week, I have uninterrupted time with the people on my team.
So what should you do during your 1:1? Well, let’s go back to the three reasons to manage up: alignment, risk management, and visibility. During your 1:1, you should come up with an agenda of what you want to talk about, even if your manager doesn’t provide you with a template. Check-in with your manager on whether or not the work you’re doing still aligns with company goals. Highlight at-risk projects and ask for help with unblocking blockers. Share big wins that you’ve accomplished and include metrics to back up your successes.
If your manager isn’t doing weekly 1:1s with you, don’t blame them! Instead, actively ask for that time. It’s important to catch up with your manager every week to make sure you align. Although we all would hope that we’re always assigned conscientious, available managers, it just doesn’t always happen, so make sure to ask for what you need.
Here’s a controversial one — although it’s important to ask questions as necessary, know when and where to ask them. Informational questions on how to do your job are always appropriate to ask. But if they aren’t urgent, think about how you can compile them so that you go through them during your 1:1 rather than on an ad-hoc basis. You might even consider doing some research beforehand!
Think twice about asking questions that are confrontational and might make your manager look bad. You can also ask these 1:1 rather than in a public setting. With that in mind, asking thoughtful questions during meetings is a great way to increase your visibility. Questions that open up the discussion to new areas or ideas are totally appropriate to ask, and don’t be afraid to ask them!
Rather than approaching your manager with raw information, come up with a way of interpreting that information that aligns with your own expertise. Although you might have less experience than your manager, you have more front-line visibility. Your manager will appreciate the time you spend synthesizing information before presenting it and will view it as a sign that you might be a fit for managing other people as well!
Although it’s easy to think that your manager might not want to know all the nitty-gritty details, this shouldn’t stop you from communicating with your manager early and often.
As a manager myself, I actually get more worried when my direct reports don’t tell me what they’re up to. The goal isn’t to micromanage, but rather to know what everyone’s priorities are at a given point in time. After all, your performance and output are how higher-ups judge your manager. Don’t give them a reason to worry about what you’re working on.
This might seem like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised how many people actually don’t follow up with assignments regularly. If your manager assigns you a project, it’s your job to figure out when to do it and to communicate with your manager as you do it.
By consistently following up, you’ll make yourself a reliable member of the team. Your manager won’t have to manage you as much, and others will view you as responsible and capable of taking on more!
The first couple of tips are great guidelines for ensuring alignment and communication, but how do you make yourself visible and position yourself for a more senior position? The most important thing is to show that you’re able to think strategically.
To do this, you’ll need to be proactive. Be proactive about asking what the strategic goals are. Ask thoughtful questions about how to execute those strategic goals. And come up with your own solutions that align with strategic goals.
Your manager should be doing this daily, and if you can take work off their plate, they’ll look to you the next time there’s room to grow.
So let’s say that you’re deploying all the above tactics to manage up. How do you know if it’s working? The best way to know if you’re managing up effectively is if (1) your manager can publicly highlight the work that you’re doing and (2) your manager lets you take on more and more strategic projects. This shows that you’re effectively communicating your achievements and that your achievements matter enough for your boss to care.
If your manager is giving you more strategic projects, it shows that they trust your judgment and know that you can handle some strategic decision-making. Note that more work isn’t better, it’s more strategic work that’s better!
At the end of the day, there’s nothing you can do if you don’t have that chemistry with your manager that allows you to level up quickly. Trying the tactics above will help, but also keep in mind that it’s not always your fault if it appears that things aren’t going that smoothly. All you can do is try your best, learn quickly, and keep an open mind.
Featured image source: IconScout
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