Managing up!

Navigating your Product Career

Amidst the whirlwind of meetings and product launches in a dynamic workspace nestled in the heart of Seattle, I found myself engaged in a surprisingly enriching conversation with a famous person (not Jeff B!.). As we delved deeper into our mutual passion for nurturing leadership skills, the topic of managing up surfaced. I found the concept captivating enough to pen down a series of articles discussing the principles, tactics, and implications of this essential workplace skill.

However, our conversation was far from finished. It ignited a volley of thoughts and insights that transcended the confines of just a few written pieces. Therefore, I am here today, presenting to you the full compilation of our dialogue, supplemented with an array of examples, additional insights, and practical tips that I wasn't able to fit into the original discussions.

If there's a specific aspect, you'd like me to delve into, I'd be more than happy to hear it. Feel free to send me a message or drop a comment below. Together, we can embark on this exciting journey of mastering the art of managing up.

"Even as Amazon towers as a global powerhouse today, its inception was marked by fragility. In its nascent stages, a mere 30 days of personal, meaningful interactions with our employees tipped the scales between obscurity and prominence."

— Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

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“Managing Up”?

The art of influencing your supervisor, often known as 'managing up,' is a crucial competency, vital to all ranks, including the CEO position. It not only facilitates your peak performance but also helps garner deserved acknowledgement. Here are some techniques and habits I've adopted that have greatly influenced my career trajectory:

Calibrate Expectations: Be pragmatic when defining the timeline, necessary resources, and anticipated quality for any task you undertake. Your superior gauges your performance based on their expectations - ambitiousness should be balanced with practicality.

To fully illustrate the principle of calibrating expectations, let me draw upon an experience from my tenure at Amazon. There was a significant project on the horizon - the implementation of a new machine learning algorithm to optimize our fulfillment operations. As the Single Threaded Owner, I was responsible for overseeing the project and setting expectations for our team as well as senior management. During our initial project planning meeting, the team was brimming with enthusiasm, buoyed by the potential of what this new algorithm could do. The data science team was confident they could get a working prototype in a month, while the software engineers wanted to implement the new algorithm in the existing system within two months. However, from my previous experience working on similar projects, I knew we needed to take potential hurdles into account. These could include data inconsistencies, algorithm tuning, and potential integration issues with the existing system. To calibrate expectations realistically, I persuaded the team to consider these potential challenges and we agreed on a more feasible timeline:

  1. Prototype development and initial testing: 2 months

  2. Integration with existing systems: 3 months

  3. Buffer for unforeseen hurdles and final testing: 1 month

While ambition and enthusiasm are crucial drivers of innovation and progress, they must be balanced with practicality and a realistic understanding of potential challenges. Calibrating expectations is not about stifling ambition, but about ensuring a shared understanding of the journey ahead, thus paving the way for sustainable success.

"Set expectations based on reality, not just on dreams. It's the only way to keep your team and stakeholders in sync and avoid disappointment."

Illuminate the Trade-offs: Be candid about the impacts when requested to modify a plan. Don't operate on the assumption that they have your level of understanding. Which areas will be impacted negatively? What aspects will gain? What's your advised course of action? Join hands with your superior to arrive at the best decision.

Picture yourself at the helm of a ship navigating the vast ocean of project management. There's a sudden call from the Captain (your boss) to change course. They might not see the same map you see, and it's your job to let them know about the stormy waters ahead. This is where you light the lantern of trade-offs.

  1. Mapping the Consequences: First, you've got to figure out how this new course will affect the journey. Will it get us to our destination faster but with more risk, or does it mean a longer voyage but safer waters? Understand how this new direction affects every crew member (your resources), the ship's supplies (budget), and the ETA at the destination (project timeline).

  2. Lighting the Beacon: Next, you need to signal the Captain. But beware, the sea is a complex beast and so is your project. Speak clearly and avoid jargon. Your Captain might not be aware of the intricacies of every role on board, so translate your findings into a language they understand.

  3. Navigating the Waters: After you've sent the signal, the next step is to propose alternate routes. If the new course means we might run into a storm, suggest other routes. Could we recruit more sailors, or maybe there's a trade wind we could catch? Offer ways to lessen the blow of the negatives while highlighting the positives.

  4. Steering the Ship: Finally, give your opinion on which course to take. This shows the Captain you're not just a messenger - you're a seasoned sailor with a keen eye for the waters ahead.

In this voyage of project management, illuminating the trade-offs is all about open communication, shared decision-making, and guiding your Captain (and team) safely and successfully to the destination. It's about keeping the ship afloat and the crew content on the journey, no matter the direction of the wind.

Deliver Excellence: Your superior's trust in you is directly proportional to the quality of your work, thus leading to more independence and sway. If you sense being micro-managed while your colleagues are not, it could be indicative of performance issues on your part. Strive for excellence in your work and you'll notice a positive shift in your professional experience. Let's paint a picture!

Crafting Excellence: For Tom, each product feature is an opus, each bug fix a battle won, each enhancement a gift to the user. His mastery shines through every product he touches, like a trusted watchmaker ensuring the highest precision in each timepiece.

The Product Showroom: Imagine Tom's manager walking into a showroom, each product Tom has crafted displayed proudly. The manager’s eyes are drawn to the attention to detail, the sophistication in design, and the smiling faces of satisfied customers. With every product inspected, the manager’s trust in Tom’s skills deepens.

Stakeholder Trust: As Tom consistently delivers high-quality results, his manager views him not just as a 'Product Manager,' but a 'Trustworthy Architect.' His innovative ideas are welcomed, and he enjoys the freedom to experiment and make impactful decisions.

The Litmus Test: However, one day Tom notices his products aren’t getting the limelight they used to, while his colleagues' work is highly praised. He sees it as a wake-up call. Rather than feeling demotivated, he takes it as an opportunity to reassess, refine his strategies, and strive for excellence.

In a nutshell, Tom's journey illustrates that in product management, consistent delivery of high-quality products builds trust, leading to increased autonomy and influence. If ever under scrutiny, view it as a chance to reevaluate, improve, and reach new heights of excellence.

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Keep Channels Open: Regularly relay your intentions, ongoing tasks, and completed projects. Overcommunication is almost an impossibility. A weekly routine I've followed is sending an email titled 'Weekly Update' to my immediate superior, detailing:

(1) my priorities,

(2) areas need unblocking,

(3) team priorities,

(4) big ideas,

(5) metrics,

This approach drastically improved my rapport with my boss.

Managing up is a practice that requires consistent effort and expertise. However, the fruits of this labor are immensely rewarding!!


In the bustling and expansive world of Amazon, Alex, a young Product Manager filled with ambition and enthusiasm, a self-taught tech enthusiast from a small town, had always dreamt of working at Amazon and was thrilled when he got his dream job. But as the saying goes, every dream has its trials and tribulations. Enter Brenda, Alex's manager, a hardened veteran at Amazon. Brenda had spent the last decade climbing the corporate ladder and was known for her razor-sharp acumen and no-nonsense attitude. But beneath the stern exterior was a leader who believed in pushing her team to their fullest potential.

Alex's team was a vibrant mix of individuals from various backgrounds - engineers, designers, data analysts, each an expert in their field. However, the diversity also meant a blend of different working styles, opinions, and occasional conflicts.

Alex trying to acclimate to Brenda's brisk, succinct communication style. Brenda, given her vast experience, was accustomed to making quick decisions and expected the same from her team. This posed a challenge for Alex, who was used to a more detailed and deliberative approach from his previous job. Despite feeling overwhelmed initially, Alex was determined to adapt. He muttered to himself, "I've got to find a way to speak Brenda's language." He spent countless hours revising his proposals, learning to articulate his ideas concisely. He also started observing Brenda closely during meetings, taking notes of her communication style. Alex's hard work paid off as he noticed a positive shift in his interactions with Brenda.

Just as Alex was settling into his role, he faced another hurdle. Brenda often gave him tasks at short notice, throwing him off his meticulously planned schedule. This left Alex grappling to meet deadlines, leading to late nights and mounting stress, feeling like he was always playing catch-up. Recognizing the need for a change, Alex devised a new strategy. He initiated regular one-on-one meetings with Brenda to understand her priorities and anticipate future tasks. He also started preparing a buffer in his schedule to accommodate unexpected requests, which helped him manage his workload more efficiently.

As Alex grew more confident, he faced a new challenge. Brenda's formidable experience often dominated discussions, and Alex found it hard to voice his opinions, especially when they diverged from Brenda's. This came to a head during a critical product strategy meeting, where Alex disagreed with Brenda's approach but hesitated to express his views. Drawing courage from his conviction in his ideas, Alex decided to express his disagreement. Armed with data and well-structured arguments, he respectfully presented his perspective. To his surprise, Brenda appreciated his insights and even incorporated his suggestions, leading to a positive shift in the team's strategy.

Alex's successful communication of his ideas marked a turning point in his relationship with Brenda. However, he realized that to "manage up" effectively, he needed to build a strong, trust-based relationship with Brenda. He had to understand her challenges and find ways to help her succeed. To build this relationship, Alex began offering assistance proactively, kept Brenda informed about his progress, and started taking an interest in Brenda's challenges. Over time, his sincere efforts led to a stronger bond with Brenda, who started involving him in critical decisions and gave him greater autonomy.

In this journey, Alex learnt the critical lesson that "managing up" is not about pleasing superiors but about understanding their needs, adapting to their style, and building a relationship of mutual respect and trust. Through resilience, adaptability, and empathy, Alex was able to overcome the trials and thrive in his role as a Product Manager at Amazon.

Resources I find valuable!!

  1. 5 Tips To Manage Up At Work:

    1. Connection is key: Building a solid, personal connection with your manager fosters understanding and trust. Shared experiences, interests, or simply knowing each other's favorite coffee can create a better working relationship.

    2. Be a mind-reader (almost!): Understanding your manager’s needs and pressures helps you align your efforts with theirs. By foreseeing the challenges your boss might face, and preparing to address them, you become an invaluable asset to your manager.

    3. Be a firefighter: Problems are inevitable, but if you can solve them before they escalate and reach your manager, you're demonstrating your efficiency and reliability.

    4. Feedback is your friend: Regularly seeking feedback shows your commitment to personal development and continuous improvement. It conveys to your manager that you're invested in your role and in the organization's success.

  2. The 8 tips on how to manage up successfully:

    1. Crack the code: Each manager communicates differently. Recognizing and adapting to your manager's communication style enhances mutual understanding and leads to effective collaboration.

    2. Trust is a two-way street: Delivering reliable, consistent work forms a foundation of trust. It signifies to your manager that you're a dependable team member.

    3. Be the hallmark of excellence: Consistently high-quality work distinguishes you as a committed, competent employee, boosting your manager's confidence in your abilities.

    4. Be your manager's secret weapon: If you can make your manager's job easier by anticipating needs, offering solutions, or taking on extra responsibilities, you'll become an indispensable part of the team.

  3. How to manage up:

    1. Become a manager-whisperer: The more you know about your manager's goals, strengths, weaknesses, and working style, the better you can work together. It also aids in setting realistic expectations and preventing misunderstandings.

    2. Walk a mile in their shoes: Understanding the challenges your manager faces can make you more empathetic, cooperative, and supportive.

    3. Speak up, stand out: Regular, proactive communication about your work keeps your manager informed and avoids surprises. It also showcases your initiative and commitment.

    4. Make feedback a two-way street: Providing constructive feedback to your manager demonstrates your investment in the team's performance and fosters a culture of open communication.

  4. A Tactical Guide to Managing Up: 30 Tips from the Smartest People We Know:

    1. Play detective: Understanding your manager's motivations and drivers aids in aligning your actions with their expectations. It helps in building a working relationship rooted in mutual understanding and shared goals.

    2. Jump in and help: Demonstrating a willingness to take on responsibilities and make things easier for your manager signals your team spirit and commitment.

    3. Clear the fog: Transparency in your tasks, challenges, and accomplishments fosters trust and aids in effective decision-making.

    4. Navigate the minefield: Anticipating potential conflicts and navigating them wisely can save your manager unnecessary headaches and further build trust.

  5. Managing Up: Advice from 5 Experienced Leaders:

    1. Mirror their Style: Understanding and adapting to your manager's communication and working style is a key element in managing up. It enables more effective and harmonious interaction.

    2. Always be Prepared: Preparation is key. Whether it's for meetings, projects, or unexpected challenges, being prepared shows your manager that you're reliable and committed.

    3. Problem? Solution!: Rather than just highlighting problems, bring solutions. It shows your initiative and problem-solving abilities, making you an asset to your manager.

    4. Speak their Language: Understand your manager's goals and priorities. Tailoring your communication and efforts towards these goals shows alignment and increases your value in your manager's eyes.

  6. What Does It Mean to ‘Manage Up’?:

    1. Build Strong Bridges: Develop a robust relationship with your manager. It forms a strong foundation for better understanding and mutual trust.

    2. Open Doors, Don’t Wait for Them to Open: Take initiative. Be proactive in communication, seeking feedback, and offering assistance. It makes you stand out as an engaged and dependable team member.

    3. Don’t be a Yes-Man/Woman: It's okay to disagree respectfully. Your manager will value your honesty and fresh perspectives, contributing to a healthy, dynamic working relationship.

    4. Your Manager is Human, Too: Remember that your manager is also dealing with pressures and challenges. Be understanding, supportive, and ready to help when you can.

Key Summary: Building a strong relationship with your manager, taking initiative, expressing honest opinions, and understanding your manager's challenges are essential to effective upward management.