How to Manage Upwards

How to Manage Upwards

Highly effective and successful marketers know one thing very well: they use their soft skills to build strong relationships with the C-suite to get things done.

How do they do it? They manage upwards. What does it mean to manage upwards? Essentially, to manage upwards means: managing your leadership and doing what it takes to make their job easier.

It’s not always easy, but it can help you get buy-in, solve issues faster, gain real-time feedback and more. This quick how to guide has eight tactics you can use to successfully manage upwards and, ultimately, help your career.

How To Manage Upwards:

  1. Think like your boss.
  2. Build strong allies in the organization.
  3. Be bold, take smart risks.
  4. Own your mistakes.
  5. Touch base regularly.
  6. Get ongoing performance feedback.
  7. Measure and share your KPIs.
  8. Offer to lead a cross-functional initiative.

Consider giving some or all of these a try for a month and see what difference it makes for you (and your boss). You’ll find that once you learn the skills to manage upwards it will become almost second nature. Also, learning how to think like your boss will undoubtedly help you with your next upward career move.

1. Think like your boss

Try to think like your immediate manager. If you’re the CMO, ask yourself what the CEO would care about in a given situation. If you’re a marketing director, what’s most important to your CMO? What skills would you want you staff to have, and what ways could they help make your career easier?

Of course, you don’t want to act like your boss as that will backfire and could negatively affect your career. But, the C-suite will no doubt appreciate your thinking beyond your department.

2. Build strong allies in the organization

Cultivate your relationships with leaders across the organization. Nothing will please the C-suite more than you working proactively and effectively as a team.  Take the age-old complaint that sales doesn’t follow up on marketing leads, for example. That is often due to a lack of alliance between sales and marketing people.

Is it the CEO’s job? To some extent, yes, but your job is to have the skills to build and manage those relationships, too. That’s better than having to play the disempowering card of having to get execs involved.  The fewer times you ask for the C-suite’s help in breaking down silos, better it reflects on you, and the more it helps your career.

3. Be bold, take smart risks

The C-suite takes calculated risks, and you should consider trying it, too.  Maybe you want to spend a couple fiscal quarters trying a new marketing strategy–perhaps a new vertical, a new geography, a new channel partnership or a new message.

If it’s successful, great. If it’s a flop, at least you tried and have some data to make improvements next time.

4. Own your mistakes

Balance the natural tendency to promote your wins with owning your mistakes.  Talk about what you tried and where it failed. Discuss what lessons you learned. Show ways you will move forward, and the next tactics you will try.

Higher ups appreciate authenticity and integrity.

5. Touch base regularly

Set a standing meeting once every two weeks for a brief 20- to 30-minute in-person talk with your boss.

You will set the agenda and manage these one-on-one meetings. Aim to cover three things:

  1. Accomplishments from the past week. Make this a quick snapshot for busy executives. Be sure to include visuals of cool assets, campaigns, or other deliverables.
  2. Priorities coming up. This step has a dual purpose: 1) Gives visibility to your boss on what you will be delivering and 2) Offers a chance to “horse trade” or negotiate a new priority your boss may ask you to take on.
  3. Issues that need attention. If there is a risk or an issue that needs their attention, bring it up with ways to handle it.

In-person meetings are especially key when your direct report is the CEO.  According to a study by Harvard Business School professors Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria, 61 percent of a CEO’s time is spent in face-to-face meetings.  This is in contrast to 24 percent of their time spent on e-communications.

From the report:

  • Face-to-face interaction is the best way for CEOs to exercise influence, learn what’s really going on, and delegate to move forward the multiple agendas that must be advanced. It also allows CEOs to best support and coach the people they work closely with.
  • You can be flexible with these meetings as things come up, but don’t allow a full month to go by without one. 
  • You’ll want to balance in-person meetings with weekly digital check-ins.
  • Spend 20 minutes putting together a brief email. Include a few bullet points that cover the information mentioned on in-person meetings.

6. Get ongoing performance feedback

Think of performance feedback as an ongoing best practice and one that you own.  Today, some companies create feedback loops for performance in real time. For example, debrief immediately after an important presentation. It doesn’t have to be a formal meeting–just don’t wait for the higher ups to come to you.

15five is one startup that helps make continuous feedback possible.  One of 15five’s philosophies is that everyone should pause for 15 minutes at some point in the week to reflect. Then take another 5 minutes with their manager to get quick feedback.  That may be too much for some teams to manage, but it’s the right idea: frequent, light touch and ongoing.

7. Measure and share your KPIs

Marketing teams don’t always have KPIs cascading down from the CEO, so be proactive in defining success.  This again requires thinking one level above your role on what’s most important to measure.

For product marketing teams, some KPIs might include:

  • Cost of customer acquisition.
  • Close rate.
  • Average cost per lead.
  • Brand recognition.
  • Completeness of product launch.
  • Positive press/analyst pickup and other social media metrics.

Be sure to share progress against your KPIs. This, too, builds important connections with senior leadership. Even if there is scant progress for some KPIs, showing ways you are attempting to improve can show your leadership you can successfully manage your position or team.

8. Offer to lead a cross-functional initiative

Offer to lead a working session with your peers on something within your organization or area of expertise.  Maybe it’s a new, exciting sales or marketing campaign, a training session on an aspect of leadership or something else.  This helps align teams, and is especially important when working on campaigns that cross marketing, sales and customer success.

According to SiriusDecisions, when B2B companies “align their revenue engine–the sales, product and marketing functions–they grow 12 to 15 times faster than their peers and are 34 percent more profitable.”

Now that you’ve learned my favorite ways to manage upward, I’d love to hear from you. What skills or practices do you use to build C-suite relationships or manage upward?

At Aventi Group, we mentor heads of product marketing to better manage upwards and build C-suite relationships. Please contact us if you’d like a 30-minute session for input on skills and tactics you can use, or ways you can successfully manage upwards.

Written By

Sridhar Ramanathan

Sridhar Ramanathan has 20+ years of experience in technology companies – from startups to blue chip firms. As the Marketing executive for Hewlett-Packard’s Managed Services business, he was responsible for marketing worldwide and managing the portfolio of HP services’ $1.1B unit. He also held profit & loss responsibility for electronic messaging outsourcing and e-service business units. Thanks to Sridhar’s efforts, HP became the #1 ERP Outsourcer and experienced growth in the data warehouse market, now well over a $1B revenue stream. Sridhar has played interim executive roles for a number of technology firms, leading their sales and marketing functions in the high growth phase. Sridhar holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and a BS in Engineering Physics from U.C. Berkeley. He is active in non-profit work as Vice Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, an organization that provides stability and hope to abused and neglected children.