Art And Culture

How middle managers can influence up at work

Most of us dislike the term ‘managing up’ intensely; for many of us it conjures up images of greasy-pole climbers and upwardly-mobile politico types.  We don’t like to think of ourselves in this way.  Instead, we like to think our work will speak for itself or we believe it’s our boss’s job to manage us, not for us to manage up.

Ultimately your relationship with your boss, and other senior executives in your organisation, are pivotal to your impact as a leader and to your satisfaction as a worker.  Mary Abbajay, author of How to Manage Up, says “the relationship you have with your boss has a lot of influence over your career trajectory”, and she’s right.

These are the people with influence over your career, and over the reputation of your team.  A bad relationship with your executive can result in personal stress, feelings of disempowerment, and can significantly undermine you and your team’s ability to do great work and to feel recognised and valued.  We all know that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses, and more senior you become the more complex the concept of boss becomes.

As an experienced leader you have people looking to you for direction, permission, decisions and recognition all the time.  Yet you’re not senior enough to be ‘in the tent’, so you often don’t have confidence in some of this stuff yourself.  This is a classic trait of ‘B-Suite’ leadership – those that lead from the middle.

  • B-Suite leaders often have multiple bosses.  Our direct line leader, project sponsors, internal stakeholders or clients all qualify as individuals that need to be upwardly managed for greater impact.
  • B-Suite leaders also tend to have somewhat competent teams – subject matter experts who largely know what they are doing.

The combination of these two things means that your time is no longer best spent ‘on the tools’ but is now more impactful spent influencing.  It’s what we mean when we say stop working in your business and start working on your business.

The three ‘influencing up’ moments to master are 1:1s, elevator pitch and executive briefings.

The elevator pitch

A nightmare for most leaders is being alone in the lift with the CEO who says “how’s it going?”.

Let’s keep this simple but powerful – no CEO wants the long-winded version upfront

  • Done: biggest recent achievement based on business impact
  • Doing: your current curly problem – higher order enough that might be on their radar
  • To Do: what’s next on the horizon

The Executive Brief

Getting it right with busy Executives, especially those who don’t know you well, needs structure.  Getting it wrong makes you look unplanned, uncertain or unclear – none of which are promotable traits!

  • Purpose: What is this conversation for?  To inform, sign off, consult or negotiate on what topic?
  • Product: What outcome do you seek – don’t make them guess.
  • People: Who is involved in this, so they determine the influencing landscape.
  • Process: What commitment should they plan for? Is this a short or long conversation, a one-off meeting, or going to lead to a repeat commitment such as a board or committee?
  • Preparation: What might your exec need to prepare ahead of this conversation so that decisions so that you – and they – get the most out of your time together.

1:1s with your direct boss

This relationship is crucial to you and to your team. According to Roseanne Badowski, co-author of Managing Up – “You want to be described as indispensable.”

Try to treat this relationship with the following mindset:

  1. I need this: my relationship with my boss relationship is key to my success (and that of my team).  In Influencing Up authors Cohen and Bradford make a powerful argument that you should do much of the work because you need it more.
  2. This relationship is two-way; we both need something from each other and we both contribute strengths and weaknesses to the mix.
  3. He/she has a lot on their mind, and a lot of competition for their time, so I need to get smart about how I use my slice of it.

To balance your relationship with your leader, giving both of you what you need, I recommend you approach your regular catch-ups with the following model in mind:

  • Ask them for their help – specifically on the things that are outside your sphere of control or you are struggling to influence quickly.
  • Tell them what they need to know – Contrary to most inner voices, flagging risks (and mitigants) early and often does not make you look bad, it actually makes you look good.  A nasty surprise, on the other hand, is hard to forgive because it makes THEM look bad.
  • Ask them what they need – Even at C suite, the upward management never stops, so actively play your role – it benefits both of you, and will reflect well on your team too.

Managing up doesn’t have to mean sucking up.  The key reason many of us don’t do it is because we think it’s self-serving – when in fact it’s in service of your team, your peers, and your organisation.  Your ability to leverage your leaders as an asset will massively lift your organisational impact – which is better for everyone.


Written by Rebecca Houghton.

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Rebecca Houghton
Rebecca Houghton, author of ‘Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership’ ($29.95), is a Leadership and Talent Expert and founder of BoldHR. Rebecca builds B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact by working at an organisational, team and individual level. Her passion is helping to evolve how leaders think, take action and relate to others, working with leaders and leadership teams to achieve greater impact.


Rebecca Houghton is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.