The Secret Success to Managing Up 

Written by: Julia Francis

Written by: Julia Francis

Okay, real talk. We all know that sometimes we need to “manage up” to our managers. Whether it’s because they are in back-to-back meetings with no time to catch a breath, they have their hands in on multiple ventures, or perhaps they’re just a space-cadet (sometimes the most brilliant Executives are just that), it’s up to us to make sure that our Executive is as productive, efficient and effective as possible. (No pressure, right?) 

Chances are, this is probably something that you’re already doing on a daily basis. However, the act of managing up is truly an art, and one that can always be perfected (I, myself, have made many a faux pas in this exact department). As an Executive Assistant, managing up is a huge part of the role and if you can manage up well, it’s only the better for your career.  

So, you’re wondering, “What’s the secret sauce?” 

1. Understand what “Managing Up” Means 

No big surprise here. Managing up quite literally means managing your manager: in your case, your Executive. As in any situation in life, at work and in your role, you have agency. Managing up means using that agency to lead your Executive, rather than follow.  

2. Build a Relationship on the Foundation of Trust  

This obviously takes time. I’ve met Executives who give their full trust at a drop of a hat, and alternatively, I’ve met Executives where it takes blood, sweat and tears to gain their trust. If you’ve been supporting your Executive for a while, you probably know where they fall on this spectrum and where you stand in terms of your relationship. If you are supporting a new Executive, leverage the team around you to gather intel.  

How do you gather said trust? Simply be being the exceptional EA that you are! (If you need a little refresher, go read our blog post on “The 10 Intangibles of an Exceptional Executive Assistant.”

3. Understand Your Boss(es)’s Business Priorities  

In order to manage up successfully, you need to have a pulse on your Executive’s business priorities so that you’re able to execute on them. I can only assume that your boss is pulled in a million different directions – and it’s up to you to help navigate where her/his time goes.  

For example, maybe your Executive loves getting that 1:1 time in with their direct reports, but they’re losing 5+ hours a week in meetings with them, which means they aren’t getting enough facetime with their portfolio companies. YOU are in charge of their schedule, so YOU are in charge of their time. Assist in developing an agenda for the 1:1 check-ins so that there is structure to the conversation, and maybe stagger the 1:1s so that your Executive is meeting with each direct report every other week, cutting down on time spent in 1:1s and opening up more time to spend with their portfolio companies.  

4. When You Identify a Problem, Come with a Solution 

This is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned! Whenever you identify a problem, it is imperative that you approach your Executive with a solution.  

Let’s say you walk up to your Executive and say, “Hey Lisa, I noticed that you’re spending over five hours a week in 1:1s with your direct reports, but you aren’t hitting your onsite goals for your portfolio companies.” Um…awkward. That’s not going to help anyone out. 

Instead, try this: “Hi Lisa, earlier you mentioned you’d like to find more time to spend with your portfolio companies. I was looking at your calendar and noticed that you’re spending over five hours a week in 1:1s with your direct reports. I created a meeting agenda that you can try out to help streamline the conversation, and I think we should test-drive staggering the 1:1s so you only meet with each direct report every other week. This will open up a couple extra hours for you to focus on your portfolio companies.” Whew…much better! 

5. Bring Concrete Evidence and Information to the Table 

This one is short, sweet and straightforward. It’s important that you always bring concrete evidence and information to the conversation. Instead of telling your boss, “Lisa, you’re spending a lot of time in 1:1s each week,” say, “Lisa, I audited your calendar and found that you are spending over five hours each week in 1:1s with direct reports.” Chances are, Lisa probably didn’t even realize how much time she was spending with her direct reports! When you give hard evidence, it helps give perspective and ultimately gives you credibility. 

6. Honor Your Instincts While Honoring Their Time  

Part of managing up means making judgement calls. In an environment where you’re constantly on your toes and operating on all cylinders, I’m sure things are getting thrown at you and your Executive left and right. Honor your instincts: you know their business priorities, you know their schedule, you know their clients, you can make a judgement call. Honor their time – only escalate what needs to be escalated. This is a perfect recipe for success. Trust yourself! 

7. Push Back and Don’t Back Down 

Okay, I’m not saying that you should go all “Bruce Banner” or anything. I’m just saying that sometimes you will have to stand your ground. Sometimes (most of the time), you know what your Executive needs more than they know what they need. It’s okay to give pushback; it’s okay not to back down. In fact, most of the Executives we work with here at Maven look for an EA who has a strong backbone.  

8. The Secret Sauce 

Spoiler alert: it’s actually not a secret. In fact, it’s the first thing that I mentioned. A relationship built on trust is going to be your key to success, plain and simple. Now believe in yourself – you got this!