Why managing upwards and sideways is just as important…


Most leadership advice aimed at building, aligning, and energizing successful teams. We all know that employees who feel they are part of a team have a higher level of engagement, are more productive and deliver better results. But is team engagement the only measurement for success? Or is there something else we are missing? For business and career success, I believe managers today may need to extend their influence beyond their teams to include their peers and ultimately, their bosses.

One of the hardest things, managers have to do is ‘manage’ our managers – or bosses (if you prefer). How many of us can honestly say we’ve got this in the bag? The truth is our CEO rely on their managers to act as trusted lieutenants who are not afraid to pushback or to offer insights that can sharpen strategy. Additionally, we can’t get anything done if we do not have the cooperation from other managers within the organisation. We should also engage our peers on a range of perspectives if we want to drive change or innovation. At the same time, we must be able to inspire and motivate our teams.

Much has been written about managing teams but there is not much discussion on managing upwards and sideways so this week, I would like to focus on these topics instead.

Mobilising your boss

You know you have some great ideas. But how do you get your bosses to buy into these ideas?

To get your bosses on your side, try focusing on big picture issues and financial results instead. When you are pitching an idea to your bosses, steer away from describing the functions of your role. If you are a marketing manager, the functions of your role include running the marketing department, leading the company’s advertising and promotion campaigns, or growing the sales. Instead of describing the functions of your department, focus on the big picture perspective instead.

Consider the big picture as the top of a mountain. The daily functions in the marketing department are the things you do when you are at the foot of the mountain. You don’t climb up to the mountain every day but there are occasions when you have to scale it. When you do climb up, you are looking down the mountain and the perspective from the top is different. At the top, you have a bird’s eye view of things. You can see the village below. You see the roads, houses, and streets. From your vantage points, things look different. The streets may be crooked, or the houses may not be ideally located.

A big picture perspective helps you see things as they are and not as you imagined. It is an opportunity to observe, correct or improve on things. A big picture challenges you to ask: ‘Why are things occurring the way they are?’ ‘What really is necessary?’ and ‘How can I fit into the grand scheme of things?’ It’s an opportunity to ask yourself ‘How can I make things better for the company?’

If you can present your ideas from this perspective, you are more likely to succeed in mobilising your bosses into action.

Mobilising your colleagues

So, you’ve succeeded in getting the boss’ endorsement for your ideas. But for you to forge ahead, you will also need other managers in the company to come on board. What do you do?

Build a momentum. Lead from the front with a compelling story that can inspire others (including those who do not report to you) to jump on the bandwagon of success.

Here’s the secret: The tactics are the same as the ones you used to mobilise your staff. What do you do when you are trying to sell a new idea to your staff? All the tactics you apply to your staff can be applied to your colleagues. This can include strong leadership, a clear vision, an actionable plan, measurable goals, rewards and recognition and a strong narrative.

To mobilise horizontally, you may have to walk the halls, get out of your office to share ideas with others, listen to their concerns, and build strong alliances.

How to have the ear of your CEO and what to say when you have it!

The individuals who have the ear of the boss almost always get promoted ahead of others. A recent study by McKinsey & Company showed that managing upwards (the boss) and sideways (your peers) contribute to almost half of a manager’s business and career success. But how do you get the ear of the boss?

One of the most common questions participants at my leadership workshops asked is: ‘How do I get noticed by the boss?’ If you are an aspiring executive, your access to the C-Suite may be far and few. Whether these opportunities are planned, spontaneous or fleeting, you must capitalise it.

Consider these opportunities as an audition for a more senior position. Take control of the situation or issue and communicate succinctly.

Here are some things I advise the participants to do:

1. Know when to approach

Most people find it difficult to discern a good time to approach their CEOs. Engaging in the lift, lunchroom or at the airport may or may not be opportune. A lot of it depends on your boss, the information you want to share and distractions of the moment. It’s important to get this step right.

Ask yourself: ‘How urgent is what I want to say?’ ‘Is it a good time to speak up now?’ ‘Am I speaking up to share something positive about what I (or my team) have done? Or am I speaking up because it is an issue that can impact the business?’

Be aware of the situation. Keep a close eye on body language. If the CEO pulls away to deal with some other matter, they may not be interested in your pitch. Terminate what you have to say and wait for another opportunity to say what you have to say.

Don’t worry too much if you get no reaction. If what you say resonates with them, the CEO will usually make a mental note and will be more amenable in future interactions.


 2. Be prepared when the time is right

Do you know that every time you are in front of the CEO or C-Suite, you are being judged? The top people in your organisation are busy executives. When you have the opportunity to connect with them, don’t waste it on small talk or gossip.

Trying to connect with the CEO by talking about your kids’ soccer practice is not going to create any lasting impression. Instead, you should talk concisely about what you want to share. Get your priorities straight and information ready so you can demonstrate how informed and professional you can be. CEOs are always on the lookout for potential. If you display this potential – even in a brief encounter – it speaks well for your future.

One of the tips I tell the participants in my training sessions is to have a mental list of bullet points they can rattle off easily when they are presented with an opportunity to interact with the bosses. This list can be an overview of your department, key points that describes how well the department is performing and how this performance impacts the company at large. Also, include a few original ideas of your own to show that you can be counted on to drive the business.


3. Know when to assert yourself

Timing is the essence. If you uncover an issue in your department or across the organisation, you may want to escalate this information upwards to the bosses. Sharing information upwards is not about gossiping or undermining others. It is about solutions to problems that may affect the business. When you spot these opportunities, you have to act by getting this information to the top.

One of the ways you can do this is to request for the issue to be included in the meeting’s agenda. Ask for a 15-minute time slot to present your case to the management. If you have critical information and the CEO is not available, consider approaching other C-Suite executives.

Being a strong leader to your team alone may no longer be good enough. An effective manager today must also be able to mobilise upwards and sideways. The efforts we put into mobilising our bosses and our colleagues are mutually reinforcing. Most of the time, these actions are geared towards achieving tangible results and advancing corporate strategy. It’s not impossible if we can align it to the big picture. 


Book a discovery call with Iris and see how she can support you or your organisation in improving leadership skills, productivity and team engagement.

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