Laura Belgrado shares some of the skills and mindsets needed to effectively manage up
We can all learn to effectively manage up to our executives. Here are some of the most important skills and mindsets you will need:
1. Be proactive
I always tell people if you sit quietly behind your laptop, hoping that things will get better or the problem will be resolved, think again; it’s not going to happen. It’s finding the courage, doing it scared, but being prepared to take the first step. I have taken many first steps and often had to take two or three steps back. And that meant I had to think again. Maybe I wasn’t prepared enough. Maybe I did not acquire enough knowledge to be able to address the issue or bring a new idea for a project or lead an initiative or find solutions to a problem.
2. Define a project or define the issue and outcome
This skill is something that I learned from my executive at Microsoft. He advised me to always come prepared, even if it was just to share some thoughts or ideas that I had. He taught me about strategic and critical thinking. These are the kinds of questions that I ask or implement whenever I want to talk about an issue or the projects that I want to undertake:
This is something that has really helped me to succeed in my career and in continuing to grow and earn the trust not only of my executive, but of the team members as well. Whenever I came with an idea from a project or an initiative, I always started with the “what”. I do this with everything, including the projects that I’m leading: What’s the project about? Who do I engage in the project? What’s the budget? Where is it going to live (e.g., a team’s channel and Excel, or just a presentation)? Why is leading this project or defining an issue and problem important? How can we anticipate more or be part of the solution rather than part of the problem? How can we measure our progress?
3. Understand your managers’ and executives’ style and working preferences
In our role, I think most of us do feel we understand our managers and executives. But every time you take ownership or leadership of an initiative or a project, keep your executives and managers apprised of progress in executing tasks and things that are going on. This is something I didn’t do a lot of in the beginning, and then I realised why I was not getting the recognition that I thought I deserved. I didn’t document enough, and I did not apprise my executives or team members of the progress in executing the project I was working on, the initiatives I was leading and the fact that I was anticipating and facilitating the resolution of problems.
4. Be transparent
We all have frustrations in our role. You have a choice: you can sit back, complain, get frustrated and not do anything about it, or say, “You know what? I am in a position as an Assistant to take ownership of certain initiatives or projects that can have a positive outcome and that can help the entire team”. That is the result I’m now seeing with several of these projects I decided to lead and take ownership of.
When you feel that you’re ready to really step up and manage up to your executive and your peers, transparency is crucial. Transparency is honesty, but it’s also gaining trust. I am very transparent with my executive, and I never talk about people. I separate people from a problem or an issue. It’s not about trying to put somebody in a difficult situation; it’s about being honest and open to feedback and being extremely transparent, whether it’s about an issue, a problem, or that you feel the need to take ownership of certain problems, projects or initiatives.
5. Give open and honest feedback
I often get asked the question “How did you come to this working relationship with your executives where you have this trust from them and vice versa?” My answer has always been trust is consistency over time. Now, although I have almost an instant trust both with my executive at Microsoft and with my current executive, Juan, it is still something that requires consistency over time, especially when it comes to managing up and taking ownership of projects and initiatives.
We have a tremendous amount of trust towards each other. We have a tremendous amount of respect. I respect his leadership; he’s an extreme visionary, very smart, but he respects my resilience. He respects my courage to continue to develop and grow in my role, and that I have ensured that I’ve gained enough trust to lead projects and have the ability now to really step up and manage up to him as my executive, but also to the leadership team, consistently. When I have an issue with my executive, I will find the courage to talk about it, and I will share either my concern or my worry. But I will also share when I am not happy or when I’m disappointed. This is a professional trust that will inspire you so that you can step up and really manage up to your executive.
6. Influence without authority
Influencing is a skill. When you learn to influence your peers and particularly your executive and your manager, it really makes a difference. I really listened, actively, and I acquired more knowledge on what the team was doing, where they were in their process. Mastering your team’s process will allow you to also influence your executive to influence with authority. These are skills that we possess as Assistants: we need to think of them as influencing without authority but making a difference. I don’t tell my executive what to do. He says to me, “It seems like you don’t tell me what to do, but you’re always telling me what to do”. I say, “No, but I’m influencing you. I am challenging you to think differently”.
Don’t give up. Be prepared to pitch the same idea or thoughts in multiple locations, on multiple occasions. Sometimes it’s about going back to the drawing board and thinking, “Did I prepare enough? Was my critical thinking behind this initiative (or thought or project) carefully thought out? Do they understand what I actually mean?” That will enhance your power to influence without authority.
7. Coach up
Where you can really make a difference is coaching up as part of managing up. I would say: be scared but do it anyway. That’s what it’s all about when you are a top performer. Coaching up is taking a proactive approach to point out (for example) opportunities to improve ways of working or time management. So, whenever appropriate, I would encourage you to coach up. Can you and should you coach your executives into more productive behaviour and/or time management or energy management? The answer is yes. You will do it scared, but go prepared.
One of the things that I’ve learned is to use specific words and phrases such as “just some thoughts” or “a heads up” or “my concern is, if you add two more meetings you will be in meetings for eight hours back-to-back, so I think we need to rethink”. Another thing I’ve implemented when I’ve coached Juan is to realise that he needs to lead by example. Everyone in the team was very tired, as they were all in meetings, back-to-back, for eight hours a day. They didn’t have the opportunity to do any work. Juan and I worked on this carefully, ensuring that he could lead by example and tell people that it is important to set boundaries and to reprioritize their time, especially when working remotely.
Consider your executive’s leadership style, temperament and circumstances
All executives have different leadership styles and temperaments. I think a question to ask yourself if you feel a little bit wary is “Should I go up to the next level and manage up or, when appropriate, coach up to my executive?” Some very important points to consider are how long you have worked together and where your trust level is right now. How well do you know your executive? Getting to know them is a continuous journey. It’s asking the right questions about their goals and objectives. Are they open to feedback, or more closed? Is this the result of a problem or a circumstance, the result of a company, or is it an individual preference or an individual issue or problem? That is a step you need to go through in order for you to move into coaching up to your executive.
Define the topic and frame your conversation
Help your executive understand how their behaviour – for example, scheduling too many meetings with no work or reflection time – is keeping them from accomplishing their goals, or sending the wrong message to the team by not leading by example. Listen for answers. Sometimes I will have conversations with Juan and he will share a couple of thoughts and ideas, and we use some silent pauses to reflect and to think together.
Always begin with stating “we” – that is, you as a team. That is something powerful. I even use that in my emails. It’s never about what Juan or I do, or what I want; it’s we. “We would like to kindly remind you” or “we would like to invite you to this meeting” or “we apologise for having to move this meeting, and we thank you for your understanding”.
It’s performing well at achieving mutual goals. I think that is something that has really, really, helped us to become stronger in the way we work together.
Always be mindful of how you say what you mean
I gained a tremendously trusting and respectful working relationship with my former executive at Microsoft, and now also with Juan, but I always remember to be mindful of how I say things. I use diplomacy in specifics. I will never take their executive responsibilities away, but I learned to take executive decisions for them. Ensure that there is a mutual agreement about it when giving feedback; ask helpful questions with respect and empathy. State that you would like to give some feedback and thoughts. My focus is always on building this incredibly powerful, positive, transparent relationship with my executive that allows me to do something I love whilst managing up and coaching up.
It gives me great satisfaction to really feel that I am part of my executive’s leadership team, and that we are leading the team and growing the brands and doing what we do. In our company we create a better future for tomorrow, and I really take that to heart. I want to be part of that.
8. Good leaders respect feedback
Good leaders want to grow and develop into even better leaders, so I use this often. I say to Juan, “Kudos, this was great. I think you are doing a great job, but if you can lead by example by ensuring that people take time to have a break, or time to do some exercise, that is going to make you into an even better leader”, and he really listens to these kinds of statements.
Let’s leave a legacy. Let’s show the value we bring to our organisations, executives, peers and colleagues every single day. Let’s talk with pride to whoever wants to listen about what it is that we do. I don’t mean calendars and travel. I mean managing up, showing our leadership skills, coming with solutions, taking initiative, and finding motivation and ambition in growing every single day, inspiring each other and inspiring the next generation.