The rise of, 'good at managing up' and why we we need to do better
It was about 3 years ago that I first heard the phrase, 'good at managing up'. Before then I lived blithely in a world free of notions that, 'managing up' could not only be a thing, but a thing considered by some a desirable trait in leadership. At that time I learned the phrase from a well-meaning colleague by way of tacit explanation as to why an extremely toxic sponsor not only appeared to get away with their behaviour, but had it actively rewarded.
Since then I'm sad to say I've heard it multiple times. Time number two it was said admiringly of a prospective colleague who seemed great at securing roles well above ability and experience. Time number three it came from a head of function as a criticism of one of my direct reports, as in, 'not very good at managing up'. This seemingly because the report wasn't demonstrating the requisite amount of forelock tugging during their interactions. Finally it was said to me by a senior leader, without any apparent irony, as a justification of why another Senior Leadership Team member had no awareness of the dysfunction reigning supreme in their business function. As a follow-up to that, an HR practitioner shortly after said, 'because our Senior Leadership Team members manage up and out...', as if it's a given of senior leadership practice and therefore a perfectly justifiable and reasonable leadership tactic.
I loathe this and I think it's wrong headed. In my 28 years in change management practice the thing that's kept me going personally is the thought that if I can do something in any small way, to make things better for the people that really make an organisation work, then it's been worthwhile. And by 'really make an organisation work',
I mean the workers that slog it out on the call centre, call after call, hour after hour, the people who staff the counter and feel the customers pain and go the extra mile to get the need met, the people who pack up the product, and seal and ship out the boxes and sweep up the warehouse at the end of the day, the people who dig the trenches and lay the cables and make the switch work when you flick it on.
Now maybe that's because Grandpa worked on the railways and my dad delighted in writing, 'anarchist' in the profession box on the national census. But for goodness sake, people are given a position of leadership because the people who do the work and deliver the value need support. Am I missing something here or is that it? So isn't it these people that leaders should focus on?
Interestingly, I've also noticed that with the rise of, 'managing up' the concept of LBWA (Leadership By Walking Around) or GOTB (Get Out of the Building) has also fallen out of favour. In the larger organisations I've worked in the complete absence of presence of senior leadership, at the level at which the work actually gets done, has often astounded me. How can you lead your people if you don't know what they do - I mean really do? You won't get that by reading a report, or looking at a dashboard, but by walking around your floors and sitting down for 10 mins to ask what people are doing, what's the best thing about their role, what's the worst and what really needs fixing?
At every forum I've gone to over the last couple of years someone trots out the appalling stats on how many projects fail (around 61% according to this 2012 research) or the latest excoriating Gallup poll results on how chronically disengaged the modern workforce is (13% of workforce actively engaged). I think this has some correlation to the rise of 'managing up' and the fall of Leadership By Walking Around.
'I don't care how many senior leader off sites you've attended, how many photos of you at awards ceremonies are plastered on the intranet or how many times you've fronted the Minister.'
What I care about is that in the still of the morning when the major change goes live, you're out there at the coal face with your people supporting them to make it work and taking away their pain, actively understanding the issues, actively enabling the fixes, so you can all collectively take away your customers pain and deliver what needs to be done.' That's what true leaders do.
"For the great achiever it's all about 'me', for the great leader it's all about 'them'."
My advice, if you're a leader and you want to find 'them' - don't look up.
Your Change Success Coach
Barb Grant is a change management practitioner and singer who coaches effective leadership.
This article first appeared on LinkedIn