Wanna Climb the Ladder? You've Got to Do This...

By J.T. O'Donnell

Yesterday, I got a question from a follower of @careerealism on Twitter. He asked,

If you are in a job that is a bad fit, but you see where you could fit better, how can you communicate this to management and be heard?

I love to hear from professionals who are passionate about finding exciting work that will let them excel. Unfortunately, a lot of these same people who are struggling to find the professional satisfaction seek are wrongly blaming management for their woes. “My boss doesn’t give me a chance,” and, “My manager doesn’t listen to my ideas,” are some of the statements I’ve heard from disgruntled new employees. However, I can tell you that some savvy employees are having great success. It is those who know how to ‘manage up’ that are actually getting heard – and ahead. When starting at the bottom, the only people we can manage are those above us. Here’s how some new professionals are using this technique to get the attention they desire, advancing their careers in the process.

There are three rules to managing up.But before we can follow them, we must first embrace one principle: that all working professionals, even new ones, are salespeople. I realize this thought makes most people cringe, but the truth is, we are all selling ourselves; our services, our ideas, and our visions for the future. Managing up is just another form of selling. The better we get at it, the easier it becomes to get what we want. That being said, successful selling on-the-job begins with a simple concept: “Ask, don’t tell.”

We’ve all experienced a bad salesperson. You know the type, an intense individual who has all the answers and makes it a point to bombard us with every single one so we supposedly have no choice but to buy. It’s such a turn off; we say to ourselves, “How dare he act like he knows exactly what I need when he doesn’t even know the first thing about me.” Worst still, when we balk, he acts frustrated, like we’re completely inept for not immediately wanting to buy what he’s selling. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, I’ve seen and worked with young professionals who have unintentionally been this salesperson on-the-job. They hit the work scene, complete a surface assessment, and immediately determine what’s wrong and what should be fixed. They believe in teamwork, and so in a sincere effort to help, they start to make suggestions on how to improve things. Yet, their patience runs short - becoming immediately frustrated and angry when their ideas aren’t taken seriously. The result: they quickly decide they aren’t going to take this kind of rejection long-term. In less than six months, they make sweeping generalizations about their job, manager, company, and even their industry, subsequently sending them looking for a whole new career. While in some cases the decision to move on made sense, I’ve seen plenty of instances where the new employee didn’t do their homework and left prematurely, missing out on a great opportunity to grow. Here’s a workplace reality we must accept: people above us have put a lot of time and energy into getting there, and while we certainly don’t have to agree with the solutions they’ve put in place, if we want to get older generations (a.k.a. upper management) to actually listen, make changes, incorporate our ideas, and utilize us in a more challenging capacity in the process, we need to prove to them we truly understand and respect their perspective.

At this point, you might be saying, “Why do I have to do all this work just to get my ideas heard? They should be more understanding. They are the ones who aren’t being good team players.” I know how frustrating it is, but instead of getting mad, get creative. Let me share a story that may help you see the potential of managing up…

I once worked with an executive whose management team ranged in ages of 24 to 67. I was impressed by how well they worked together and respected one another’s ideas. I specifically asked him how the younger managers had gotten positions of power at their age. His answer: “I don’t care about age. I simply hire managers who know how to manage me.” When I asked what he meant, he replied: “I look for managers who understand how to ask me things, people who know how to communicate and build consensus. In short, I look for people who are smart enough to know how to educate me, ultimately broadening my perspective and helping me see the value of the solutions they propose.” Now, you might think this CEO is a swell guy, full of compassion and understanding. Wrong. He is one of the most direct, intense executives I’ve ever met. He is no ‘people person’ and I’m sure he has scared many an employee away with his professional nature. But, the people that work for him have figured out what it takes to connect with him, and they are reaping the rewards.

In summary, managing up doesn’t mean “sucking up”or even “looking up” to those in charge, it means “teaming up” with them in a way they can relate to. For those of you who are still saying, “They are the older ones, they need to do the changing,” I say, get ready for a long, lonely career progression, full of job hopping and lacking any meaningful mentoring. Managing up does more than help to overcome challenges in the workplace, it shows the capacity to be an effective part of the solution. Up, down, or across, managing in the workplace is every employee’s job. But only those who learn to manage well, eventually find themselves in leadership roles.

FYI - Tomorrow, I will post the three rules to managing up. So, come back and visit us to learn what they are. Better still, why not sign up to receive our posts automatically by e-mail? The sign-up form is in the top right-hand side of our homepage and guarantees you'll get zero SPAM and only our latest content in your inbox.

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