5 crucial questions to help you “manage up”

“Managing up” is one of the most crucial skills you can develop as a fundraiser. 

Being good at managing up will continue to serve you throughout your career, whether you’re just starting out, or you’re moving into the role of CEO or Executive Director. 

Managing up is a term that gets thrown around a lot - but what does managing up mean, exactly? 

I like to think of managing up as simply another facet of leadership. It’s supporting and enabling those around you (including those “above you” in your org chart) to feel effective, successful and fulfilled in their role.

And yes, you can (and should) manage up effectively no matter where you are in the organization!

If managing up remains a bit of a mystery, here are 5 questions you can ask yourself to bring greater clarity to this valuable process. 

What do they want to achieve?

Understanding what your boss or board wants is the cornerstone of managing up.

Whether it’s a specific project outcome, a change in the organization, or a personal aspiration, you need to uncover what someone wants to achieve in order to be successful in managing up. 

If you’re an experienced CEO working with a board of directors, or a new fundraiser just getting to know your boss, asking great questions is an important skill - to your growth as a leader, and as a fundraiser.

Every situation is different, so the questions you want to ask will vary - but here are some of the things I tend to be curious about when I’m working with a leader or board member: 

  1. What do you hope to achieve in your role? 
  2. What are your priorities for this quarter? This year?
  3. What does success look like for this project? 
  4. What keeps you up at night? What are the most stressful things about your role? 
  5. What accomplishments are you proudest of? 
  6. What values are important to you? 

This doesn’t need to feel like an interrogation, or take up a lot of time. Good questions come from a place of true, respectful curiosity - and becoming expert at weaving strategic questions into your conversations is a great skill to develop (especially for fundraisers!)   

What’s motivating them?

At first glance, understanding what someone wants to achieve, and understanding what’s motivating them look like very similar things.

And often, they can be. But sometimes, what someone wants to achieve and what’s motivating their behaviour can be in direct conflict. 

This is an important distinction to understand if you are going to master managing up. 

Here’s an example: 

I’ve heard from several fundraisers that their board has made the decision to “pause” fundraising, because they perceive that asking for donations during a pandemic is inappropriate or insensitive. 

So ultimately, a fundamental goal that every board needs and wants to achieve (ensuring the financial stability of the organization) is in fact being threatened by what is currently motivating them (fear of how donors will react to fundraising, often based on unfounded assumptions).

No board sets out to make a decision that may lead to the failure of their organization. But when what they want to achieve is at odds with what’s motivating their behaviour, you have a great opportunity to flex your managing up muscles, and provide the support our boards and leaders need to make well informed decisions.

If you find yourself in a situation like this, it’s time to pull out one of your most powerful tools from your managing up toolbox - sharing social proof. 

What social proof can I offer to shift perspectives?

Helping someone above you in your organizational hierarchy shift their perspective is advanced level managing up - but there is a very simple approach anyone can use to do this.

Social proof is a term coined by Robert Cialdini in his classic book, Influence (this is a great read for fundraisers, and anyone working on the managing up skills). In plain language, social proof refers to our tendency as humans to follow the actions of others when making decisions.

There are a few ways you can leverage social proof to help you manage up - and one of the most effective is bringing in expert opinion.  

One of my first fundraising mentors had a great expression when it came to expertise - it went something like this: 

“An expert is someone who carries a briefcase and comes from more than ten miles away”. 

She shared this in response to my feeling of frustration with the board I was working with at the time. She would come in and provide the exact same information or perspective I had been sharing - but when she said it, all of a sudden heads were nodding along in agreement!

This is a challenge that most of us will encounter during our careers - no matter how much internal expertise we develop, the external expert can appear to be taken more seriously by your board or leadership team. 

If you’re in this situation, here’s where understanding the concept of social proof can be especially helpful - it’s simply your board or leadership gathering more evidence about how to behave, or what action to take. And it’s also important to know that the need for social proof can become even more urgent when uncertainty is involved (hello, 2020…) 

Using experts for social proof does not have to be limited to bringing in a consultant, facilitator or trainer (although that can certainly help accelerate things!). You can also share articles, research, or case studies from industry thought leaders, or successful organizations that your leadership team admires. 

What solutions can I bring to the table?

Once you understand what someone wants to achieve, you’re clear on what’s motivating them, and you’ve shifted their perspective with social proof if necessary, you’re in a great position to begin helping them tackle some of the challenges they are facing. 

Those who are most successful at managing up help their boss or board solve their biggest problems. You can do this by anticipating their needs, being proactive and bringing a range of possible solutions to the table. 

It’s important to do this well, picking the right time and using the appropriate channels at your workplace - for example, bringing up a solution to your bosses greatest challenge in front of her boss without prior discussion may be perceived as going over her head, 

Which brings me to our final, and perhaps most important question about managing up... 

What is good managing up NOT?

The final question to reflect on as you’re developing your managing up skills is, “what is good managing up NOT?” 

Good managing up is not manipulative, or “sucking up.” People who manage up well share the same qualities as great leaders - a sincere motivation to help the members of their team be as effective, successful and fulfilled as possible in their role. 

Good managing up is not playing into office politics - while understanding the dynamics of office politics is an important part of learning how to successfully navigate the workplace, good managing up contributes to a more healthy environment, not a more toxic one.  

And finally, good managing up is knowing when to stop banging your head against the proverbial wall when nothing is working. 

Workplace bullies can be particularly resistant to good managing up - and unfortunately, no amount of skill can change the situation once you’ve been targeted by a bully, so watch out for the warning signs (a lesson I learned the hard way, dear reader - but perhaps that’s a story for another blog post!)

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