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Managing up: An industry skill you can learn in academia

There are many differences between a career in academia and one in industry. Although there are some common elements in the way that the science proceeds, there are many more areas of great differentiation. And yet, there are a few areas of career advice that apply just as well in academia as in industry. I have one of those for you this month.

Recently I was on a long flight, from one coast of the United States to the other, which gave me time to get acquainted with a new book: Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO. The author, career coach Beverly E. Jones, brought forward an important concept related to the boss-subordinate relationship: “managing up,” referring to building a relationship with your boss that allows for mutual benefit.

This idea turns out to be one of those rare areas of concordance between industry and academia because the boss-subordinate relationship is so important in both contexts. After discussing this topic with postdocs and principal investigators at a recent Career Day I attended, I came to believe that, if you composed a list of the toughest bosses in the world, at least half of them would be in academia. That makes the university just the place to start sharpening your managing up skills.

Kissing up or good career strategy?

In the book, Jones describes managing up as a series of behaviors that are much like any other form of leadership, but instead of leading subordinates, you are doing your best to eliminate obstacles placed in front of you by those who are higher up. By helping them move their agendas forward, benefits accrue that have the downstream effect of making your own goals more accessible.

But wait a minute—is this starting to sound a bit too much like that obnoxious character you knew as the brown-noser from your first lab, the one who would do anything to ensure that he was in the boss’s good graces? No, that’s not what Jones would suggest, nor would I. Often it’s a matter of subtlety, and it all boils down to intention. If your intent is to have praise showered on you, then you’ll be crossing that brown-nosing line and quickly earn the wrong kind of reputation. But when managed correctly, your actions to help those higher up will very directly influence your own progress in a positive way.

Here are five of Jones’s suggestions for managing up, adapted to a scientific career.

1. Set unselfish goals. Managing up does not mean trying to manipulate people or creating situations that put a win in your corner. Focus on the greater good—what’s good for the lab as a whole—not what’s best for you. Managing up could include offering proposals that will increase the lab’s visibility or bring benefits to the entire team. Achieving this mindset requires, as Jones writes, a sense of “authentic humility.” And remember that, by helping your boss and the team, you will ultimately be helping yourself as well, for example, by improving the culture of your working environment.

2. Understand what your boss, department, and institution need. Look closely at your institution’s plans and biggest investments, and think about how your boss and your department fit into those plans. Look for every opportunity to develop ideas that will contribute to those larger departmental and institutional strategies and share them with your boss. Again, the goal is to help the team so that you can reap the trickle-down benefits.

3. Maintain and enhance your area of expertise. While working toward plans that benefit the general good of the lab or department, you’ll find opportunities to develop an area where you are the authority by gaining expertise in an area that complements your boss’s strengths. For example, she may not feel comfortable with how to council others on finding an industry job. If you learn about it, you can bring back valuable insight that can help your boss expand her knowledge. It can also help your labmates who may be looking for industry jobs, and yourself. One friend of mine became the in-house expert on networking and career guidance while he was a postdoc. He became recognized across the department and his institution as the go-to person for anything related to career development training. A year or two later, he was offered a job at a major Japanese university doing exactly that!

4. Be gracious in managing credit and blame. As Jones writes, “credit is a vast resource to be spread around, not hoarded.” Share the credit wisely and you’ll avoid a reputation as a kiss-up. Similarly, take more than your share of the blame when it goes around. Be the one who accepts blame and quickly turns toward solutions and you will earn respect and trust.

5. Report without drama. There’s already lots of drama in the average laboratory—avoid doing anything to add to it. Be the one who can bring the boss solutions without inserting any unnecessary intensity. Avoid exaggeration, gossip, and negativity. Instead, gain the reputation of being direct yet tactful. Don’t be the one who tells the boss what she wants to hear, but aim to be the one who brings accurate portrayals of problems along with positive recommendations for moving forward.

Choosing the right approach

Managing up is a highly customized process which requires that you know something about your boss. You can’t start managing up from the first day in the lab as a new postdoc; you’ll have to watch, listen, and learn before knowing anything at all about that person’s style.

One area that illustrates this principle is communication, which is a crucial component of managing up effectively. Ordinarily, communication is an exchange that requires both parties to participate toward a successful outcome. If you and I sat down to talk over a cup of coffee, it would be my responsibility as much as yours to ensure that our exchange works out well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way when you are dealing with bosses. Simply because of their status on the prestige totem pole, they don’t have to follow the same rules.

In communicating with everyone else, you lay out your message and—hopefully—listen well to theirs. But with the boss, you’ll need to pay close attention to her preferred communication style and adapt as needed. Does she prefer direct communication, where you come right to the point and spit it all out in 1 minute or less, or does she prefer an ice-breaking exchange before getting down to business? Everyone is different, and your input will be better received if you fine-tune your communication to match your boss’s preferred mode.

Regardless of the boss’s style, Jones suggests that you be brief. “Be succinct,” she writes. “Assume your boss is busy and won’t want to waste time. If you ask for three minutes to discuss something important but then talk for 10 before reaching your point, the boss could be feeling impatient or annoyed by the time you make your case.” To avoid this uncomfortable situation, she continues, “[p]lan ahead. Before your conversation, be clear in your mind about your points, and be prepared to state them simply and directly.”

From my own past experience, I know that it can be a real temptation to overload a conversation with too many topics. In most cases, you don’t get a meeting with the boss all that often, so you want to make it count and squeeze in every detail you’ve been thinking about. But the key is to prioritize. Do the best you can to limit the number of items in the conversation. If you try to discuss more than three or four points, you run the risk of wearing out your welcome. Nothing strikes more fear in my heart than a boss who is looking at his watch when I am trying to make an important point!

Lastly, there’s one thing almost universally true about managing up. Bosses don’t like it when you come in and rattle off problems without having a suggested course of action to go along with them. “Bring me solutions, not just problems,” is the way my first boss described it. That’s right—you may be in front of the boss to get her to resolve an important question, but you’ll still need to suggest your own course of action. She may not take your suggestion—don’t be offended if that’s the case—but with time you’ll gain respect for being proactive and creative in addressing issues that arise. And that first time the boss agrees with you, it will feel mighty good.

Some bosses will lap up the compliments and eager coffee runs of those who intend to follow a kissing-up strategy. That’s not you. Regardless the size of your boss’s ego, she or he will have a genuine need for a person on their team who thinks about wins on a grander scale than the selfish view of a brown-noser!

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