Post from Transformation Tom- Learn to Manage Up, Down, and Around: Chapter from “The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas”

Posted by tomdowd - January 27, 2019 - News - No Comments


Can you manage and motivate people around you effectively? Can you inspire the people who work for you and with you to run through a wall for you? Can you push your peers forward who only come in for their paycheck? Can you confidently influence leaders above you and make a difference? I have found that professionals are not always equally balanced in all of the above. This presents an opportunity to learn to better manage up, down, and around. The number of people who work for us, with us, or above us is irrelevant. Everyone has a boss, even CEOs and self-employed people, both of whom need to report back to shareholders and customers, respectively. Everyone has people all around that can be influenced, persuaded, motivated, and managed.

Let’s start with the people who work for you. Many of us have been in positions in which we need to manage down. However, I should rephrase it to describe it as lead down. We should be leading people along a path to success. In this day and age, people want and need to feel appreciated and feel as though they are a part of the overall company. Managing has to be replaced with leading if we truly want to have the impact necessary to drive the business forward and build an effective relationship with employees.

Today’s workforce thirsts for leaders who can build confidence, develop relationships, and increase people’s overall satisfaction level. The success of the business is only as good as those who are doing the work. So I will ask the question that was posed to me, “If you ran through a wall, would people follow?” It took me many more years to learn that you can, and will, get better results by caring for people. I found out that I needed to be more open to what they have to say to improve the business, and strive to make them better today than they were yesterday. I needed to adapt my style based on the individual I was dealing with, rather than blanket managing a group. I learned I needed to lead the effort, not just manage the day-to-day results. I also realized that if I peaked over my shoulder as I ran through the wall, I wasn’t exactly sure if I would see people following me. I had to work harder and smarter at knowing the answer. Since I am confident that hope won’t win the game, I began to put in the effort needed to ensure that I wouldn’t have to look over my shoulder any longer. In many cases, I was learning to not only run through the wall, but to get out of the way so my team could forge ahead. I was learning to ride the coat-tails of others while leading.

I was gaining confidence in the fact that people believed in my vision, my mission, and my core values. I became more accepting of employees as individuals, and became more myself. I used to worry that if I ever played the trust game, in which you fall back into someone else’s arms, that I would not be caught. I truly believe that when I began to genuinely trust and respect the efforts of the people around me, those people became more satisfied and productive. I became less obsessed with results and more focused on the individuals working toward those results. Having less control was a new and uncomfortable concept to me. To my amazement, however, the results did indeed take care of themselves.

Another lesson is to take care of the support people, whether they work directly for you or not. The people who do the little things (and the big things) behind the scenes keep a business afloat. The many little things add up to significant impacts to everyone’s workload, potential profit, and overall satisfaction levels. I have been in several positions when people on the support staff have been on vacation and I immediately felt the short-term impacts. I have also been witness to instances when people on the support staff have been let go from the company due to budget cuts. I have felt the pain of picking up the workload nobody realized was there until it was too late. There were impacts to communication channels, key contacts, and routines that vanished. I was so confident in certain things getting done like clockwork that many things came to a screeching halt when the support person left.

I understand business models revolving around expense management, but we need to fully consider the value of good support and build that into the overall model. Everyone in the company doesn’t need a dedicated staff working behind the scenes, but a good business model does account for the value added by having a solid support staff. The ‘go-to folks’ are go to for a reason. They will take care of you. When you have the advantage of great support people, always ask what you can do for them. It is a question that I may not ask enough, but I do know it is always appreciated.

Managing peers around you is difficult for many reasons. How do you manage people or situations when you supposedly have very little influence on them? They do not have to listen to someone who is not an authority figure for them. I have learned to build bridges, and I am very confident that I have a positive reputation for working well with my peers.

As I have stated many times, it was not always that way. I had a demanding and urgent nature to my requests. To some extent, I don’t think the urgency has ever left me. However, I now better understand the importance of collaboration. In recent years, I’ve had fewer people reporting directly to me, but seemed to have more responsibility across a broader spectrum. I had no choice in these situations but to learn to manage the peers with whom I had no direct influence. I had to invest the time to speak to people who could assist and support me. I had to work well with people who could teach me a new business, or learn to negotiate their involvement in order to assist with the completion of one of my requests. I learned how to provide mutually conducive environments in which everyone could win. I also taught myself that it was all right to not have all the answers and to ask questions…A lot of questions. I learned not to hold back and to ask questions that allowed people to dig deeper, and this in turn, built mutual trust and respect. I learned that a team of peers who learned from each other and played off of everyone’s strengths all moved up together.

I also learned to eliminate my negative competitive feelings. I used to worry whether the person with whom I was working would get the credit for work I had done. Would they get the next promotion? Could I afford to have them look better than me? When I finally learned that a team effort creates better quality work, we both won. I began to get a reputation for being a team player and that made me more favorable in the eyes of people making decisions about my next roles. I am not naïve enough to think that there is no competition. However, I no longer worry about it. I trust that either the right person will get the job or, more importantly, that everyone wins in the right situation.

How do you manage the people above you? This is a foreign concept to many people. I have learned that we need to learn to communicate up effectively. If you are given feedback, you have the right to ask for examples. If you are told to do something faster or better, you must ask how and why. A healthy and respectful dialogue will build the relationship and make both of you stronger. If you do not understand specific instructions, you should clarify and confirm. It may bother some managers to have to go into more details, but it is much better to invest the time up front than waste energy doing it all over again due to some initial miscommunication resulting in the job being done wrong. The confidence you possess when speaking to people you manage should not go away just because the bigwig is in the room. Nothing should change. We are all working towards the same company goal of making our business better.

We should seek to maintain strong conviction in our voice and avoid holding back points we feel need to be said. If we prepare and use facts to state our points, we should be confident in what we are discussing, as this discussion may create opinions and create a debate that is needed. If you are not strong enough to state your opinion, then all sides of the argument are not exhibited and additional facts are left off to the side. If your leader disagrees with your points, this is fine since at least then the entire story is on the table. When this occurs, you should professionally ask questions as to why the leader may not agree with you if you feel you have stated all the appropriate facts. Finish your thoughts with confidence. Even if cut off, you can professionally interject when you feel it is appropriate, or ask to finish your thoughts. I am not asking for everyone to speak over their managers, but I have found if you have done the legwork and preparation, including building a solid relationship foundation, this type of communication is acceptable, and even encouraged, as everyone is striving to achieve the company goals.

I have found people who were more willing to offer a quick apology for having an opinion than willing to finish a healthy debate. I was one of those people. Now, I seek to ensure that it is a two-way conversation. This comes through mutual engagement in the conversation and a built-up trust and respect from both parties. If this mutual trust and respect is not there, then make the effort to build it. Be open and honest; the buzz word in professional lingo is to be transparent. Do not be deceitful or withhold information. Note that I didn’t say you couldn’t filter messages; filtering messages provides enough information without wasting anyone’s time (e.g., executive summary).

Be as prepared as possible to manage up by having reference information at your fingertips, staying in tune with industry information, and understanding the leader’s tendencies. Keep a nice pace to what you are saying so it is fully understood and questions can be asked. Be structured and organized with your thoughts; take the time to think it through. Trust that when you are in a position to speak to senior people within the organization, you are there to provide valuable information and that they are there to seek information that will strengthen the business.

I have had many conversations with individuals who felt there was an underlying tone or agenda to some of the senior leader questions asked in focus-group-type sessions. For example, cynics may perk up when responding to a question like, “How do you think we are doing overall as a company?” when they are having issues with their own management team, and feel the question is meant to spark a negative comment. If that is truly the case, escalate your concerns to other parties who could make a difference. Trust is a delicate thing that needs to be earned, but it is a two-way street. You have the right to build up enough trust so that when someone asks what’s on your mind, you can genuinely share it.

The other side is not to speak up just to be heard or to impress. You should speak up when you have something important to say, not because you have a scripted or canned question or response.

Get comfortable with having conversations with senior leaders. Be curious—ask questions that are meaningful to you and your team. Your silence says as much as the person asking questions just to be heard—yes, that is obvious too. It takes work and preparation to increase your comfort level. You can role play ahead of time and network with people outside your area to practice. In all cases, seek to build your confidence by continuing to try. You may surprise yourself.

Whether you are managing up, down, or around, know the audience and balance your messages with honest and genuine responses. There is no need for the traditional good-bad-good sandwich feedback approach. Just provide honest answers and questions. Look for the positive in everything, but build relationships in which direct and genuine conversations can take place—that is where constructive conversations grow. If something is not going right, it is not about spin, it is about what positive measures you are taking to fix it. If two people can work through a plan of action, anything can be made better.

Finally, be willing to be wrong. Take chances—it won’t hurt you (most of the time) as long as the right effort and attitude are there. The great thing about all of the mistakes I’ve made is that I get the excitement of sharing what I’ve learned with everyone willing to listen. This builds your credibility and trust—thus opening up communication with more people. If I didn’t make mistakes, I would have no speeches or books to write, or have anything to say to my mentors.

Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):

  • Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
  • Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
  • Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
  • The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
  • From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
  • The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood

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