A Delicate Management Task – Managing Upward

Pile of stonesHave you ever been completely exasperated when you couldn’t convince someone above you, senior management, a board or a direct supervisor, to approve an action or authorize resources that you needed to get your job done?  When I was the Director of Human Resources in a large teaching hospital with staffing as one of my responsibilities, all requisitions to hire staff had to be approved by the COO.  So it was my job to get positions filled as quickly as possible and I was continually frustrated by the COO’s delays and even refusals to sign the staffing requests.  As a result, my days were filled with managers ranting to me about how they couldn’t run their units because they were short staffed usually followed by a call from the area VP telling me to get the jobs filled now.  My technically accurate, but inadequate defense was that I couldn’t hire for a job that wasn’t approved.  I knew this was not an effective system and was aggravating for everyone involved.  Over time, I came to realize that a handful of managers who had direct access to the COO tended to have their positions approved far sooner than everyone else.  I decided that instead of patiently waiting for signed requisitions that I would initiate meeting directly with the COO and request approvals.  I was partially successful since he trusted my judgment, but eventually I learned two important facts.  First, one of the COO’s primary duties was to contain costs which he could do by delaying the filling of jobs.  Second, he believed that it was important for managers to personally advocate for their departments and be convincing about why additional staff was critical to service delivery.  Consequently, I adjusted my guidance to aggrieved managers.  They could wait for two, three or four weeks and the position may get approved.  Or they could gather data on how this unfilled job was costing overtime dollars or causing a reduction in the quality of patient care and present it directly to the COO.  It was never a perfect system, but with these new pathways the process was clearer and more efficient for everyone.

The Art of Managing Upward

I believe this process of “managing upward” is a formidable management obstacle and an essential skill that all successful leaders must acquire – whether you are a manager reporting to a Director, a VP reporting to the CEO or the President of the company reporting to the Board of Directors.  The delicate dance is to articulate the request for needed money, staff and attention without appearing to be a chronic complainer or an ineffective manager who is unable to adequately utilize the available resources and channels.

Key Principles for Successful Leaders

There are a number of key principles for successfully navigating these inevitable organizational realities:

  • It’s not about you – although you may be personally tired and frustrated, remember that the solution should not focus on addressing your individual issues, but rather on what is necessary to make the team and ultimately the organization successful. 
  • Establish your reputation – be sure that in the vast majority of circumstances you are able through creativity and hard work to solve problems with the resources provided. 
  • Exhaust your own repertoire – be creative, brainstorm with your staff and your peers, explore and try all the options you can think of and keep your manager apprised of those efforts. 
  • Communicate early and often – be certain that your direct supervisor and ideally the next level manager are aware of the situation and its implications as well as the initiatives you have implemented. 
  • Know your boss – what type of evidence is most persuasive for him or her? What is he or she most concerned about?  It is hard data such as declining sales or profits or is it anecdotal information reflected in a poor customer experience or unhappy employee? 
  • Get others invested in solving the problem – be sure to include all those who share the impact and responsibility for the results.  Be certain they understand that this is a shared responsibility and not just your problem.  In addition to your supervisor and your team, the shared accountability may include finance, HR, marketing, risk management and others. 
  • Build your case – combine statistics and stories.  Outline the data to demonstrate exactly what is occurring such as increased volume accompanied by reduced staffing or rising service complaints.  Then illustrate the impact with a couple of specific customer or employee stories.  Show the organizational impact if this trend continues. 
  • Emphasis the lost opportunity cost – rather than highlighting what can’t be done, be clear about the potential gains if this situation is rectified – more sales, higher profits, enhanced customer satisfaction, energized staff. 
  • Be committed – if you are advocating for a particular course of action, be sure that you are fully engaged in assuring that it will work as advertised.  Your emotional conviction serves as a powerful tool of persuasion. 
  • Report and reward – if your request is approved, be sure to keep all the stakeholders updated on the outcomes.  Publicly and privately thank those who have helped and supported you.  Look for opportunities to assist them in some way. 

Do you have any situations in which you have been successful or unsuccessful in managed upwards?  Do you have any addition tips or suggestions to share?


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