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PEAK Grantmaking

Managing Up: A primer for grants management professionals

For the uninitiated, “managing up” is a relatively new concept that takes traditional management structures and principles and turns them upside down. Simply put, managing up is defined as actively and methodically developing a good working relationship with “the bosses” in your organization to obtain the best possible results for all involved. Those who successfully manage up report increased job satisfaction, improved performance and fast-tracked career advancement. Successful managing up can also accelerate organizational change.

For grantmaking professionals on the frontlines of foundation work, managing up is an essential skill. As the foundation staff with the most specialized knowledge, experience, and skills needed to improve grantmaking strategy and practice, your ability to effectively communicate and influence change is key to advancing your own career and deepening your organization’s impact through practice change – a win-win!

At a recent PEAK New England regional chapter event, I facilitated a workshop on the topic, entitled The Art and Science of Managing Up for Grantmakers. We began by exploring the following three ideas.

1. Bosses are people too.

Start by acknowledging very intentionally – and with empathy – that bosses are human beings with the same strengths, weaknesses, and challenges as you. While poor managers are cited as the top cause of employee unhappiness and turnover, in many cases, they are well meaning but lack the support and training to become effective in their roles.

Keep in mind that most managers in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are promoted through the program ranks and receive little training in management or leadership. Also, as many of the New England workshop participants reported, managers in their organizations were overworked or lacked power because of organizational structure. We collectively attributed many of our identified challenges to these realities.

2. Relationships take two.

It is generally true that what bothers one employee about a boss might not bother another. Relationships – good or bad – are a shared responsibility, so crafting a successful working partnership requires effort and flexibility by your manager and yourself. A person who successfully manages up changes their own behavior, which sparks change in their manager’s behavior as well.

There are five steps to managing up:

  1. Do your job and do it well. This seems obvious, but it is the key to building a foundation of trust with your boss. Do what you were hired to do and solidify in your boss’ mind that you add value to the organization. Ensure that you are the kind of employee that your boss doesn’t have to worry about getting things done and getting them done well.
  2. Know what drives your boss. Spend some time watching and listening to your boss as they interact with you and with others. Develop a strong understanding of what your boss’ goals are, what problems they are trying to solve in their position, what motivates them and what they worry about. This will give you empathy for them and tell you how you might help them to solve their problems and accomplish their goals, thereby showing additional value to them and the organization.
  3. Learn your boss’ preferences, strengths and weaknesses. We all have preferences, strengths and weaknesses. Highly valued employees identify their boss’ preferences around communication style, work style, pacing, etc. They also understand when to get out of their boss’ way and when to step in and help their boss navigate areas of weakness.
  4. Understand your own preferences, strengths and weaknesses. It’s also important to take stock of your own preferences, strengths and weaknesses to determine where you might complement your boss’ tendencies and where you might conflict.
  5. Assess the gap and adapt. This is the most important step. Once you have done the “research” to complete the steps above, you must then use the information to change your own behavior in ways that will also spark changes in your boss’ behavior. There are many great examples of how to do this. My favorite is – if your boss is an introvert who needs time to process information before discussing it or making a decision, you should always set meetings and send agendas in advance. Send information to them for consideration by email and give them quiet alone time to consider it. This will show your boss that you understand and respect how they work best, and it will ultimately get you more well-thought-out responses and better decisions.

At the New England Chapter workshop, participants shared practical suggestions for sparking change. One participant shared how creating a standardized performance management plan helped to corral much-needed support, advice and professional development from her otherwise “hands off” supervisor. Another shared that planning ahead for multiple project revisions from her “hands on” boss had helped them both maintain their sanity and build a good working relationship.

3. Good relationships are all about trust, and trust leads to organizational change.

Successful working relationships must be based on trust and a mutual understanding that both manager and employee are working toward the same goals with the same dedication. Effectively managing up establishes a strong foundation of trust with your manager – trust that you are good at your job, and trust that they can rely upon you to get the job done well and bring your best ideas to the table.

Where trust exists, bosses are more likely to listen to and absorb the thoughts and ideas of the employees they trust. And when those employees are grant professionals with thoughts and ideas about how to improve grantmaking practice and deepen impact, bosses are more likely to stop, listen, and act accordingly.

At PEAK, our goal is to empower and inspire our members with practical knowledge to advance their careers and increase the impact of their organizations. Managing up is a unique topic that furthers both those aims.

For those interested in an in-person training on managing up, we offer a workshop that can be tailored to any time frame or method of delivery. For those interested in reading more about the topic, there are many great books and articles out there, including those used to create the workshop and this article.

Recommended Reading

Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work and Succeed with Any Type of Boss, by Mary Abbajay

Harvard Business Review Series on Managing Up:

What Everyone Should Know About Managing Up (2015), by Dana Rousmaniere

How Damaging is a Bad Boss Exactly (2012), by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman

Managing Up Without Sucking Up (2014), by Whitney Johnson

Setting the Record Straight on Managing Up (2014), by Amy Gallo

How Employees Can Influence a Nonprofit Supervisor’s Job Performance (2005), by Rebecca Gardyn for The Chronicle of Philanthropy