Managing Up: A Crucial Leadership Skill

By Salima Hemani, ACC. 

One of the most important capabilities that any strong leader needs to demonstrate is their ability to build effective relationships. And one of the most critical relationships, which doesn’t get enough attention, is a leader’s relationship with their boss — whether that be one person or a board. Your relationship with your boss could be pivotal to your success or failure as a leader. You can leverage that relationship in several ways, from obtaining valuable information and winning needed resources to securing important support for your personal development and career. Your boss’ advice, insights, knowledge of the organization, and access to higher management can be invaluable.


On the other hand, the consequences of a poor relationship with your boss are many: less influence, little information or advice, fewer resources, and limited support. Worst case, you can find yourself isolated, ignored, and pushed out.

Effectively managing up is about consciously cultivating this important relationship with your boss for mutual benefit, growth and fulfillment. However, managing up is not easy because it is not always an easy relationship. We can easily fall prey to three things that can make it tougher to productively build that relationship.  First has to do with how we view our boss. We often try to put them in one of two boxes: judge or developer.  The reality is that you can’t always presume your boss is always one or the other. Instead, think of those roles as extremes between which your boss may oscillate depending on the situation. 

Second, if you have had difficult or frustrating relationships with your bosses in the past, you and they might be victim of the emotional baggage you both carry forward. Reflect on your own history with your previous bosses and the feelings that has created in you. That history may lead you to perceive your current boss as a combination of past authority figures. However, you might be doing yourself and your boss disservice by not being able to think of your boss in an independent objective manner. 

Finally you might be facing a phenomena with your boss which we call founder’s syndrome: As the organizations that they have created grow and expand, it is very difficult for the founders to think about the time when they are no longer able to play a central role in the development or delivery of services. Their identity is wrapped up in the institutions which they may think of as their “child.” Thus, it might be difficult for them to give up creative control, sometimes to the detriment of other leaders in the organization. Working for such bosses might make you feel stifled, that you are not being heard or given a say in the decision making.

Therefore, managing up starts with recognizing how critical the relationship with your boss is and consciously developing and managing that relationship. According to Linda Hill, a professor at the Harvard Business School, a healthy relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate is a “partnership in which the partners depend on each other to succeed and are able to influence each other in ways that improve the performance of each.” This partnership is built upon four key pillars:

  • Clear and effective communications
  • Alignment on priorities and expectations
  • Mutual trust, support, and loyalty
  • Understanding each other’s unique work and communication styles

The relationship that you form and manage with your boss is critical to your growth and success as a leader. Managing up is something you should invest in consciously. However, it is important to remember that it is not about flattering your boss or even managing your boss. It is truly about managing the relationship with your supervisor that helps you both achieve your goals, grow and thrive.

To learn more about managing up and developing your leadership skills, contact Salima.