Managing upwards


Do they really care about your project?To err is human; to blame it on someone else shows management potential.

Perhaps a little unfair on the huge number of expert managers out there, but this simple sentence nicely sums up a recent situation I found myself in which I’d like to share.  It may be a trifling matter in the grand scheme of things, but I’ve learnt some valuable lessons along the way, and a problem shared and all that…

Picture the scene: a young, bright eyed officer is tasked with setting up a borough-wide project involving senior managers from across the Council and every service area.  Brimming with excitement, she is then brought back down to earth a little by being told that she has just three weeks to go from nothing to completion.

Undeterred, our brave and intrepid officer begins her journey towards success:  research and benchmarking is done, case studies are sought and a plan emerges from the shadows.  Meetings are booked, including the first one with a very senior officer more than a few rungs up on the treacherous corporate ladder.

The meeting is a great success; in fact almost too successful.  The senior officer backs the project wholeheartedly, sharing that they have been involved in near identical enterprises in the past and know exactly what to do.  They and their own team have all of the information to hand along with the relationships with others to complete the job, so effectively agree to do the work.  This is noted, agreed and shook upon, whereupon our officer leaves them to it.

A week or so later our officer calls to check up on progress, to be assured that everything is in order and she’ll have the information as promised on time.  Other colleagues are also assured that everything is on track, further comforting our trusting officer.

A further week later and the inbox is still bereft of information.  Not a single spreadsheet, word document or powerpoint presentation has arrived, and our officer is becoming increasingly nervous.  She has told her own boss that it’s all in hand, on the basis that an even more senior officer has told her that it’s all in hand.  She even has e-mails saying that some of the work has begun and setting out clearly what was agreed and expected.

The day before the project, with all information due to be presented within 48 hours, she finally manages to pin the senior officer down to get everything promised to her.  However, the only thing she receives is a slightly tired look and an excuse that they actually weren’t quite sure what they needed to do.  Also received is a flat out denial that an agreement had even been made in the first place, despite her evidence to the contrary.

Our crestfallen officer then explains to her boss just why she trusted someone else to do the job she had been tasked with, and why it then did not materialise on time and to spec.

Managing upwards is a serious skill.  Managing those you have authority over is challenging enough, but at least you are able to discipline them if they do not perform as required.  Managing someone over whom not only do you have no authority but also little relationship with feels nigh-on impossible.

This officer is turning around and looking for the silver lining attached to this colossal cloud, and it comes in the form of lessons learnt.  In the spirit of sharing, here are a few biggies:

  • Don’t trust anyone to deliver anything – chase them constantly
  • Get everything, especially agreements on tasks and deadlines, in writing
  • Keep your line manager informed at all times as to what you are doing
  • As soon as you have concerns, raise them with your line manager
  • Don’t be overawed by senior officers.  They are busy and have more irons in fires than a blacksmith, so often over promise and under deliver.
  • If they agree to do something, ask who will be actually doing it and then engage with them directly
  • Try to excite them about your project; if they have a degree of personal buy-in it’s more likely to stay on their radar
  • Align it wherever possible with their own goals and targets, even where they don’t perfectly match
  • Tie it in with raising their own profile for the same reason

And above all, don’t get disheartened when it falls apart; you were let down by someone who you should trust to get things done and then didn’t.  just don’t let it happen next time!

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UKlocal government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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