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managing up in your first graduate job

Managing up: the ability to make life easier for your boss

As a graduate in your first job, you might not have anybody to manage… apart from your boss. Find out how to manage up and how it will help you succeed.
You can’t manage up unless your manager trusts you.

Managing up is the skill involved in managing your boss. But isn’t that the very last thing you’d expect to have to do in your first graduate job? Surely, it’s a no-no of office politics?

If that’s your assumption, think again. Managing up is required in any graduate job role. It is not arrogant or presumptuous. It is not a sign that you think your boss is weak or incompetent. On the contrary, a manager who allows himself or herself to be ‘managed up’ displays confidence, openness and skill in people management.

How is managing up defined?

You’ll almost never see ‘managing up’ in a job ad, but it’s fundamental if you want to do your job well.

It is not… being a ‘critical friend’ to your boss. That is being presumptuous and it's not a role we’d recommend you adopt, although managing up can sometimes involve flagging up problems and constructively reshaping your manager's perceptions.

It is...:

  • Taking the initiative to manage your relationship with your line managers. This is an ongoing process, not a one-off action.
  • Influencing their views of your work.
  • Supporting your boss, who should also support you.

If your first job after finishing your studies is with a big graduate employer, your boss is likely to be a middle manager with a remit to keep a particular area of work on track in line with the organisation’s overall goals, while at the same time adding new ideas. Whatever the size of organisation you work for, when you manage up you need to understand your manager’s goals, needs and ambitions as well as pursuing your own, and seek to ensure that your approach helps the organisation achieve its aims.

Which skills and attitudes will assist me in managing up?

First, you need to demonstrate the key strengths and skills required of the job. These should be outlined in the job description. The basis of a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with your boss is making sure that your boss can rely on you to do your work efficiently and well. You can’t manage up unless your manager trusts you and has confidence in your abilities.

The following skills will help you to manage up and make yourself an even more valuable employee:

  • Commercial awareness. You won’t be able to manage up effectively if your goals don’t reflect the organisation’s commercial objectives.
  • Communication. It will help if you can clearly and succinctly communicate plans, thoughts, observations and feelings to a busy boss. Can you improve your working relationship – and what you and your boss do – by thinking laterally or coming up with fresh ideas?
  • Emotional intelligence. The ability to recognise your own and other people’s emotions, and make adjustments that support your relationships.
  • Enterprise skills. Can you spot an opportunity and use your initiative to improve a working relationship? It’s possible to be enterprising with people, as well as being enterprising in a business sense.
  • Influencing skills. Can you persuade a boss to take a certain course of action?
  • Leadership. Do you understand and appreciate what a leader does? Because that’s what your boss is. Managing up successfully will help you develop skills for when you become a leader.
  • Teamwork. You and your boss make a team. The skills that make you a good team member, including the ability to compromise and collaborate, will help you to manage up.
  • Resilience. Can you maintain a positive working relationship through the bad times as well as the good?
  • Problem solving. Working relations can be a bit of a puzzle. Can you solve them?
  • Managing ambiguity. Can you help your boss make the right decision even when the information they give you seems insufficient?
  • Prioritisation. Can you help your boss with their priorities?
  • Assertiveness. Can you engineer win-win situations?

All the above are covered in our advice on skills and competencies for graduate jobs.

How is your skill at managing up likely to be assessed?

You are unlikely to see ‘managing up’ in a graduate job description, or to be asked about it explicitly on a job application form. However, the whole recruitment process is designed to give the employer a sense of what you’d be like in the workplace, and your ability to manage upwards is a key part of that.

Here are two things you can do at the initial application stage to show your potential to build a good working relationship with your future manager:

  1. Demonstrate helpfulness. When you write about your achievements, choose an example in which your behaviour was helpful. You can’t manage up constructively if you’re unhelpful. Who would want to hire you if you were?
  2. Choose one of the skills involved in managing up from the list above, such as emotional intelligence, and illustrate that. It’s great if your example draws upon a time when you actually managed up, or supported someone in a position of authority; if not, it’s fine to choose an example in which you influenced a peer – so long as the skill you choose to discuss about is relevant, and you can demonstrate how you used it to positive effect.

Demonstrating in an interview that you can manage up successfully

At interview you could be asked directly to talk about a time when you managed up. Alternatively, you could be asked to describe a time when you’ve had to persuade someone in authority to take a particular course of action. You could also be asked a hypothetical question about managing up, such as, ‘How would you ensure that your relationship with a manager is always constructive?’

In all cases, centre your response around the skills and attitudes essential for managing up and an awareness of the role and responsibilities of a manager.

How to give an example of managing up

Examples of managing up don’t have to be drawn from your work experience. Here’s an example taken from extracurricular activities.

‘I’ve been an active member of the local football club for several years. For the first two years I was mostly in the reserves, but I had an ambition to be in the first team. I was making some progress in persuading the captain to promote me when he left town. I didn’t have much of a relationship with the incoming captain so I made a big effort to change that, not only by playing well in the reserves but also by volunteering to help in the club bar where I could be guaranteed to get to know him socially. I knew he was feeling a bit of pressure, so I told him I thought he was doing a good job, which was true. I asked him what he wanted to get out of the team and he said to strengthen the midfield. I asked him if he didn’t mind me making a few suggestions about how to achieve this. He said ‘certainly’ so I gave my thoughts. A couple of weeks later, after I told him about some suggestions for the club bar, I asked him for a trial in the first team in a midfield position and he agreed.’

The answer shows awareness of the captain’s position, empathy, innovation in dealing with the dynamics of the relationship, partnership skills, teamwork, diplomacy and assertion.

In an assessment centre, you can show your capacity for managing up by how effectively you influence and work with the team leader of a group exercise.

Which graduate employers want recruits who can manage up?

All of them. You’ll always have a line manager and so will need to manage up. It’s a valuable skill in organisations where teamwork is important, including in engineering, IT and the creative industries.

How can you develop managing up skills?

  1. Join a team.
  2. Use your experience to develop the skills listed above.
  3. Develop your relationship with the team leader to further the aims of the team, the leader’s aims and your aims.
  4. Be aware of how you’ve achieved steps 1 to 3, and what you’ve learned.
  5. Be brave in your dealings with people.

What not to do or say

  • Don’t try to dominate or sit on the sideline.
  • Be wary of writing or talking about ‘telling’ a boss (or someone in authority) to do something. You need to show you understand how to respond to people in positions of authority in a diplomatic way if needed, without seeking to undermine them.
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