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Managing Up

Most of us who were trained as scientists and engineers never received formal training in management. Upon reaching various levels of experience and success, many of us have been (or soon will be!) thrust suddenly into some form of a leadership role for which we usually were ill-prepared. Sadly, great individual contributors do not always turn into good leaders, which is one factor that leads to dysfunctional teams and high turnover of good employees.

Most new leaders (and many books on leadership) focus on the large set of difficult issues that a new leader faces in managing his/her team (“Managing Down”.) While this is highly appropriate, it is my observation that the long-term success of a new leader is equally dependent upon their ability to work effectively with their higher managerial chain (“Managing Up”.) Having recently completed a long career managing bioinformatics teams (Human Genome Program (1988-2000)), Biodefense programs (2000-2018) I can share a few of my observations about Managing Up.

Control the Communication Flow

The simplest rule for managing up is to keep your boss informed and never let your boss be blindsided by news coming from someone else that they should have heard from you first. This is doubly true for bad news. I am continually amazed at how many team or project leaders fail to figure this out.

How much does your boss need to know, and when? My suggestion is that you send a weekly summary at a predictable time that suits your situation (I liked to do this on Friday evenings, so my boss could at least potentially read and digest it over the weekend, but any regular schedule will do.) I tried to keep the summary in bullet form and no more than one screen-length, unless circumstances truly warranted more. I always ended with some form of “Let me know if you have any questions or need more details”. What you report on will obviously vary depending on your industry, tasks assigned, etc. but some things are nearly universal: status of project(s), milestones reached, current issues/bottlenecks you are working, any team issues (hires, morale issues, etc.), resource/funding issues, etc.) Once you have the regular reporting going, you can just report on deltas or exceptions to keep things short.

(Yes, I understand that some of you will be saying: “But we have weekly status meetings with my boss present already where this is discussed or on slides. Isn’t that enough?” I would argue that the email summary is still useful in addition to whatever is being done. It gives you a private channel to discuss and document your thoughts and decisions and include things that you didn’t want to air in front of the entire team. And for those of you who are just too cool to ever use email anymore: grow up!)

Don’t drown your boss in detail, and don’t ask for help/permission unless truly necessary. You are a leader, so lead! A good technique is to report something like: “The team considered options A, B, and C <briefly explain them> for resolving problem X. We chose to implement option B because… <brief summary of your decision reasoning.>” Yeah, this is using the Goldilocks approach, but you would be amazed how well that works in practice both with your boss as well as your team. If option A appears too extreme and option C too minimal, either your desired option B becomes an obvious choice, or your team will have suggested improvements to B. Not all decisions are appropriate for the team to make with you, so clearly you own those less-frequent cases.

Do you have more than one boss? This is quite common in organizations with a matrix structure, where you may be responsible for multiple projects (each with a separate boss) and maybe also an organizational boss as well. (I am a computer scientist, so I often had biologists as bosses on my projects and a computer scientist or mathematician as my organizational boss.) Do not be afraid of having multiple bosses; in fact, I joked for years that: “Once you have more than 4 bosses you become completely autonomous!” There is much truth in that statement, but only if you manage the communication flow well with all of them.

How do you know if you are communicating effectively with your boss(es)? For one thing, they will be likely to inform you if you are updating them at the wrong frequency or level of detail. Keep in mind that your boss(es) will be worrying a lot about technical, schedule, budget, and staffing risks. If you can keep them up to date on these key points at their desired frequency (and if your team delivers well), you will be recognized as a very good leader. If you someday realize that your boss never has the need to ask you: “How are things going?”, it is a great sign that your communication strategy is working well.

Talking to the Big Dogs

Most of us have more than one level of bosses above our immediate boss. It is important to realize that you need to craft a different communication strategy for dealing with them. The first rule is to Respect the Chain of Command and do not bypass your relevant immediate boss when you are communicating results or status to the higher levels. (Note that I am implicitly assuming that we are talking about written email or other electronic communication but be careful to quickly back-fill your boss if you bumped into a higher-level boss in the hall and told them the good or bad news first.)

In general, you do not CC: higher management on your regular status reports to your immediate boss. But sometimes good news (securing new funding; meeting a key milestone; closing a huge sale; etc.) does need to get sent up the chain without delay. My technique was to address the email to my immediate boss and CC: all the appropriately relevant bosses at peer or higher levels. This shows that you are paying respect to the chain of command, which your boss will appreciate. I always had an email alias for my team, and I would be sure to also include it on the CC: for all of the “good news” reports sent up the management chain. This is the absolute simplest way to ensure that your hard-working team gets the recognition and strokes they deserve from the Big Dogs; it invariably gets a chain of “Reply All” attaboy responses from most of them. This approach also avoids the inevitable delays of the good news reaching the highest levels if you rely on serial passage from each level of bosses.

Always credit your team on any such congratulatory messages going up the food chain. The old adage about “There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team’” definitely applies here: your email should always be written in the third person (“Today the team reached a key milestone…”) Remember also the other adage about “A rising tide raises all boats”: your own personal stock as a leader goes up far more with both your team and your bosses if you lock your own ego in a box and always credit your team for every bit of each success.

How do you manage a bad boss?

I was very fortunate in my long career at a National Lab to have a preponderance of good bosses, but I did have my share of difficulties along the way (including micro-managing, total abandonment, control freaks, technical jealousy, etc.) There is nothing quite like sending regular progress reports for a year to a boss who never once responds in any way…but in a few cases I either out-lived their tenure as my boss or else I switched projects to get away from them. The rest of the ones who started out as less-than-desirable bosses I managed to tame through my communication technique to the point where they eventually realized that if they just left me alone, I would run my team well and make them look like a genius. Your mileage and circumstances will of course vary, but experiment with some of these Managing Up ideas (or share them with your boss or friends who are leaders) and let me know how they work for you.

(Tom Slezak had a long career managing bioinformatics teams at a National Laboratory. He now does independent technical and managerial consulting and coaching for biotech companies. See: )

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