Managing Upwards

by Ian Saunders

Supporting your boss

What are your boss’ role and accountabilities? Ask your boss about their objectives, their primary tasks and activities, their focus of attention. Act upon the information they give you in reply.

  • If you have an organisational culture that is very entrepreneurial, your boss is likely to value new ideas and stretching targets. If you are seen to stretch yourself and look for new and better ways of doing things, this may be as important as results.
    Key action

    Find out all you can about your boss’ role, objectives and what keeps them awake at night.

  • Does your boss value timekeeping? If so, make a point of doing it well – all the time.
  • Is keeping the corporate systems full of up-to-date information important? If so, do it.

Remember to consider differences between you and your boss when you go in search of answers. Choose your time well.

How can I help?

A significant part of managing upwards is to know about the priorities and challenges that your boss faces and then help to make things easier for them. (I guess that, just occasionally, you might not want to do this and in these instances I remind you that ‘most bosses have more power and influence than you do...’).


A manager in a major bank began working for a director who was brilliant at strategic stuff and poor when it came to tactical ideas. He realised that he could support his boss by filling this gap. He made decisions that helped his boss to deal with tactical issues more effectively. It made his boss look better and built high levels of trust between them.

Having identified your boss’ role and accountabilities, consider how these fit in with your own.

Always think about how what you are doing might be helping (or hindering) your boss. The person who is successful at managing upwards will make sure the balance is in favour of helping their boss.

What keeps your boss awake at night?

Do you know what keeps your boss awake at night? If not, then you probably don’t know about them, their role and the challenges that they face.

Before you go and ask your boss what keeps them awake at night, consider these questions so that you begin to build up your own ideas about the answer.

  • What do I see them spending their time on?
  • What do they do when time is limited?
  • From a positive standpoint, what do they seem happy not to do?
  • What do they often talk about?
  • What are they anxious to do well?
  • What regular times in the month do they stay in their office?
  • What customer problems keep cropping up?
  • What supply or manufacturing problems (or equivalent problems in service industries) keep occurring?

The act of spending time gathering this information will be valuable in its own right in helping you to manage upwards successfully.

Key action

What support does your boss require? Actually go and ask – they might say they do not need support right now. Don’t press ask – again at another time, especially when your boss seems under pressure.

Once you have found out about your boss’ role you can – in connection with understanding their style and their differences from you – work out the best way to support them.

  • Do they need you to be more pro-
    Key tip

    Always be curious – spend time finding out how to support and help your boss. It is a vital part of successfully managing upwards.

    active and to take the lead?
  • Would it be better to offer support and suggestions?
  • Do they encourage you to highlight problems and issues or simply to overcome them and report success?

Think of your own questions that will enable you to understand how best to support your boss.