In the early days of my digital marketing career, I found myself in my mid-twenties leading a large multi-disciplinary team and responsible for a multi-million dollar website launch. It wasn’t a position I’d ever expected I would be in just a few years earlier while finishing up college and changing my major for the fifth time in my senior year (clearly a topic for another post!). I rose quickly and stepped into my role with boundless curiosity and a passion for the work.
I took to managing all of my direct reports with a fervor and excitement that I now consider to be the early clues of my love for motivating, inspiring and all things leadership. But when it came time for me to report the work of the team and the challenges facing the project to senior leadership, I felt like a teeny tiny person.
The symptoms of my inexperience were physical and visible. In my status meetings with our SVP, my face grew hot and red. I was holding back tears and I had no idea why. I was taken over by an image that I had done something wrong, I was unworthy of being in the room or that I would need to defend myself. And it didn’t get better when I began to talk. Eyes glazing over. Yawning. Checking watches. These reactions were not going to get me the support for the team or the project I needed. I knew I needed help to fully step into this role by managing up.
Thankfully, I was able to enroll in leadership training that gave me the tools to build my confidence. I read every leadership book I could get my hands on. Then I practiced, believed I was worthy, made mistakes, learned from them and was honest about areas I wanted to grow. Interestingly, with all my focus and attention in this area, it’s become a great strength of mine, and is something I share with my clients as one piece of the puzzle that can clear the path for them to rise in their careers. Here are three areas of focus for you to practice when you’re managing up.
1. Heal childhood wounds around authority
For many people, especially for those who are early in their careers, authority figures and hierarchy can bring up a lot of fear. Don’t judge yourself for this fear. We’ve all been yelled at by parents and teachers and athletic coaches and those memories live in our bodies as we sit down with bosses and leaders in our companies. Identify what memory may be a trigger for you, get quiet and be compassionate to the child who was embarrassed or belittled. Do some writing or reflecting on what came up in those moments and remind yourself you are not that child anymore. You are strong enough to deal with whatever anyone would say about you. Most importantly, you can now choose what to believe and not believe. If this seems like an area where you need additional support, it can be life and career-changing to work with a therapist around some of these early traumatic moments that may be holding you back.
2. Less is more
This is a lesson that took a long time for this verbose woman to learn, but once I did, my managing up skills grew exponentially. Your senior leaders do not need to know every detail. In fact, they have no time for those details. You must break down your message to its simple core. What are the high level takeaways and where do you need their support? Wherever you can, make recommendations for solutions instead of dumping problems in their laps. When you come to them with your honed story and clear concise needs, you’re demonstrating that you respect their time and that you have the confidence to take on the details without them.
3. Authentically promote yourself and your good work
Leverage your time with and your exposure to senior leadership as an opportunity to plant seeds about your pride for how your projects are moving forward, relationships you’ve build and ideas you have that might further the goals of the organization. This is a tough part of the job for many because they feel it’s fake or phony—but truly it’s not if you talk about the things that bring you actual pride and joy. Side note: if you’re having trouble finding those things you have other challenges that you should investigate. When you regularly build the case for the value you’re bringing to the organization, you will be primed to take on more responsibility and clear the path for promotion. Learn more about how to do this with my 5 Commandments Of Self-Promotion.
The good news is that these are skills that can be developed over time. There are some people who seem to have come out of the womb confidently persuading and presenting cogent arguments to the C suite, but for the rest of us—there’s hope and time to hone our craft. And as with all professional development endeavors, it starts with a mix of self-awareness, compassion and enough curiosity to experiment with a new approach.