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Empower Yourself at Work: How to Manage Up

The only person that is going to manage your career is yourself.

Image by Maryam62 from Pixabay 

The best career advice on advancement I’ve received was from my first mentor. I was working for the federal government and complaining about how bureaucratic management had an iron grip on my career. My mentor replied, “The only person that is going to manage your career is yourself.” I was stumped because didn’t this perceived authoritative bureaucracy  decide my professional fate? Not entirely.

If you put all the power of your professional future in the hands of one person, or a single authority, you will repeatedly be dissapointed. Even the best managers get distracted and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of their role and can’t be psychic to your needs. Whether you have a stellar boss or the opposite, practicing the art of managing up will help you take the reigns of your career.

Start With the End in Mind

There is nothing wrong with telling your boss that you aspire to be Indra Nooyi one day. Whatever role or person you aspire to be, before you ask your boss for advice on how to get there, draft a map of what you think the trajectory is to attain that goal. Present your draft to your manager to get her/his thoughts and advice on your draft.

If you have that kind of clarity early in your career, awesome. It’s also ok if you don’t. When I was twenty-three, my mentor asked me to create a timeline of my personal and professional life for the next ten years. I was mortified. Ten years seemed like a lifetime. He then had me scale it back to five years which was more doable for me. The point of drafting a timeline isn’t to create a rigid map of your professional life, but rather to have first authorship of it.

Another tip is to search your company’s organization chart or open positions for roles with job descriptions that appeal to you. Whether or not you qualify for position, sharing a job description or role with your boss provides even greater clarity of your aspirations.

I learned this from a team member who managed up to me. He printed out the job description for a role he was interested in and reviewed it with me during his one on one. He started the conversation by saying, “This is a role I’d like to do in our company. What advice do you have on how I can earn it?” He was taking charge of his career by literally providing me a map to his next role. I then used parts of the job description to develop criteria so I could identify whether he could be successful in this future role and to help him achieve his goal. He succeeded, made a great impression on my boss and I promoted him to a similar role a year later.

Give your manager tangible information on what you want to achieve and then ask for assistance to attain it.

Take Control of Your Training

I’m a strong believer in self-education. Self education takes shape in many forms via interviews, internet articles, online courses and books. Essentially, it’s the work you do out of curiosity or drive to learn something new and to personally or professionally grow. It can also be the only possibility you have for training when money for formal education is not available or attainable.

I once candidly told a junior employee who aspired to be a manager that I would not approve training funds to send her to management courses because it did not align with her current role. She was an entry level employee who had only been with the company three months and was still adjusting to her job responsibilities. I instead gave her a short list of books that would give her foundational knowledge about technology management. I also referred her to our company’s learning website which had several free topics on management.

For some companies, training is not budgeted, planned or seen as an investment in employees. Do not let the lack of formal training availability as a reason that is preventing you from growing in your professional career. There is a wealth of books (don’t discount your library) and online courses from EdX, Coursera and Kahn Academy in various price ranges (sometimes even free) that are available.

If your company does have a training budget, do your homework and recommend specific training you’d like to go to. Solidify your recommendation by ensuring it aligns with your current role and offer courses in low and higher end price ranges. Don’t give your manager all the power in your training. Manage up by clearly telling her/him what training you’d like to do and why. If they can’t or won’t send you, don’t let that squash your curiosity and drive to educate yourself.

Manage Your Evaluations

Most companies have formal evaluation processes that include an end of year review of your accomplishments and areas of improvement. Regardless of whatever formal policy is in place, don’t wait until the end of the year to learn from your manager how you’re doing in your job.

Set yourself up for management success by recommending to your manager the following evaluation schedule:

  1. Job Responsibility Review. If you’re starting a new job, request an overview of your job responsibilities with your supervisor. Yes, this is noted in your job description but take the time to ask your manager questions around what success looks like in the role. Based on this review, build your evaluation goals around this feedback and review them with your manager. Get agreement from your manager that your end of year evaluation will be based on these goals. Continue to do this review every year.
  2. Regular One on Ones. Don’t wait for your manager to schedule one on ones. Take charge of the meeting request and schedule them instead. Your manager will let you know if the cadence works or not. Schedule one on ones for 30 minutes and list this agenda: 15 minutes for whatever topics you want to discuss and 15 minutes for anything your manager wants to discuss. Avoid going through your task list during your 15 minutes. Instead, steer the conversation around your career aspirations (review your map!), provide feedback on your work environment, or use the time to get to know your manager and company direction. Aim to have at least one per month.
  3. Quarterly Evaluations. If you have a great manager, you’re never going to be in the dark about your performance. That’s not always the case though. I’ve been blindsided by end of year evaluations because I didn’t have the courage to ask my boss throughout the year how I was performing. I just assumed he would tell me. Regardless of whether he should have provided instant feedback, I own this misstep because I never asked him directly for feedback throughout the year.

Don’t be misinformed. Work hard to develop a thick skin against constructive feedback. Similar to the recommendation for One on Ones, schedule a quarterly review of the evaluation goals you agreed to. Add an agenda that notes you want to review each goal and ask for feedback on three things that are going well and three things that need improvement.

I cannot stress enough the need to set clear, short agendas for each of these meetings that include goals and expected outcomes. You are more likely to have your meeting accepted and it gives your manager a heads up on what you’d like to talk about.

Conclusion

Regardless of where you’re at in your career, don’t assume every boss is going to take care of you simply because of their position. It will not always be the case that your manager has your best interests in mind. This doesn’t mean you’re working for a poor manager, it’s simply reality. There’s a business to run and there’s always a fire to put out. As a technology executive I was frankly relieved when an employee charted their course and reviewed it with me. It left the guesswork out and helped me become a partner, versus an authority, in their career goals.

Managing up is not a negative thing. Do it with tact and it will lead to greater success. In his poem, Invictus, William Ernest Henly said it eloquently when he wrote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

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