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Volume 21 No. 35
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Balancing content, frequency is central to managing up

Managing up is at its very essence a communication strategy and practice for keeping your “boss” informed. The challenge is determining the content (what the boss should know) and the frequency (how often you should be communicating).

From my previous experience at the NBA, I can tell you this is a learned behavior. Frequency was easy. After each team visit, I filed a summary of my visit complete with identifying problems, assessing the situation and making recommendations. That report went to the senior vice president of my department (team marketing and business operations), the deputy commissioner and the commissioner. We also operated under a rule that was underscored to each of us on several occasions by Commissioner David Stern: No surprises. That meant, no matter how bad the news was or how it positioned anyone involved in the process, he did not want to be surprised in the future or be at a disadvantage because information had not been shared with him. Thus, the content in my given situation was all-inclusive.

But being all-inclusive and being too frequent is not always the desired practice. The size of the organization, the number of direct reports, seasonality and content are all situational factors that vary. Another issue is remaining informational and not self-promotional. Some employees view this as an opportunity to inform management of what they have been doing and their interpretation of the importance of those activities. Like anything else, a small dose is fine, but continuing to draw attention to yourself (if not supported by other sources) can position you negatively in the eyes of management.

To gather some insight on managing up, I reached out to some industry contacts at various levels in their respective organizations and asked them to share their thoughts. The level of the executive is a key determinant of the process.

Use data, present solutions,
and no surprises

Assess the communication style of your manager. Don’t be afraid to ask what they prefer in terms of communication style and frequency.

When in doubt, over-communicate. Your manager can always tell you to if it’s too much.

Use data to support your communication. We live in a data-driven, decision-making environment.

Rely on the facts and content of your messages to position you favorably with management, but don’t overly self-promote.

Share bad news as well as good news. If you are identifying and presenting problems, identify possible solutions and alternatives. Present yourself as having the ability to be a problem solver and critical thinker.

Understand that time is precious. Therefore, having time to plan, prepare or react can be critical, so communicate in a timely manner at all times.

Your manager should never be surprised if the information to prevent that surprise is available to you.

Eric Woolworth, president of business operations of the Miami Heat, explains that he is in a situation where ownership has hired the best people and is confident in their abilities, so there is a different level of reporting expected. However, he stresses that frequency of communication is not as important as the subject matter. “We always want to be sure we are on the same page with our ownership,” he said.

Leigh Castergine, vice president of ticket sales and service for the New York Mets, said, “The key to managing up is understanding how your manager operates — i.e., when do they open [or] read email; do they like to be ‘dropped in on,’ or do they prefer formal, scheduled meetings. After understanding their style, it is all about being efficient. Have your ducks in a row, present the information in a simple, clearly understood manner, and anticipate any questions that they might have regarding the information you have presented.”

Jeff Ianello, senior vice president of sales and service for the Phoenix Suns, defines managing up as “the art and science of proactively communicating pertinent information and data on a frequent and consistent basis.”

“One must understand what is important to the company as well as initiatives that are important to his or her respective manager, then provide that information — supported by data — before it is asked for,” Ianello said. “My goal is to minimize the amount of times I have to be asked to provide information. Thus, the more I am asked for information is indicative that I am not managing up very well, so I prefer to be proactive in providing information, as I have never been told I am providing too much information.”

Tracie Hitz, a career development consultant who previously worked in athletics at Northwestern University, said, “The idea of managing up is to make that person to whom you are reporting look good. This is accomplished by working closely together, sharing ideas, not being afraid to fail, and sharing both the credit and the fault.”

Jim Popovich, director of season-ticket service and retention for the Pittsburgh Pirates, makes the point that many young managers are afraid to make mistakes in managing up, and some avoid attempting to communicate because of that fear.

As we learn more and more about our work environment and the people who inhabit that environment, we will no doubt learn more and better ways to manage, whether it be up, down or across. Dave Gray, in his book “The Connected Company,” reminds us that a business is not a machine, as it was first viewed by Frederick Taylor, the “father of scientific management,” but rather an organism that grows and is capable of learning.

Let us all continue to grow, learn and improve our communication skills in and out of the workplace.

Bill Sutton ( is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.