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5 Steps to Help You Manage Up

Managing up wordleHave you ever accepted a new project even though your plate was already full? Many of us have been in this position. We are so driven to succeed that we say yes to these new assignments without much thought. As a result, we find ourselves stretched thin, making us overwhelmed, discouraged and ineffective. This in turn affects our productivity, negatively impacts the firm or company and derails our priorities.

If you are a young CPA with aspirations—whether your goal is to take on a leadership role, move into management or simply make your current role align more with your vision of the future—there is an approach you can take that will help you get ahead without having to say yes all of the time. It’s called “managing up.”

“Managing up” is a concept that involves finding new, more effective ways to work for the mutual benefit of you and your supervisor—and is a term you’ve likely heard before.  

But how do you manage up? If you don’t have a plan or your goals defined before talking to your supervisor, your attempts to manage up will likely go nowhere, or worse, they could backfire.

Common Strategies are Ones to Avoid

One common approach to managing up involves becoming more aware of your supervisor’s goals for you and the department, then molding yourself to fulfill those needs. While this seems like a logical way to get ahead, more often than not, it’s ineffective. Instead, what usually happens is you take on more and more work in an attempt to prove your value, regardless of whether it contributes to your own goals. Eventually, you end up overwhelmed or frustrated, and unable to produce the same quality of work.

Another strategy some use is to try to motivate others—either their supervisor or co-workers— to do things they believe will help their personal cause. Keep in mind that, if you use motivation as a tactic, it must be accepted intrinsically. You can’t force inspiration onto anyone. While relying on motivation may lead to short-term gains, it almost always leads to losses when those being “motivated” realize the employee was really trying to further his or her own success.

Be Authentic and Know What You Hope to Achieve

The best approach to managing up is to remain authentic. To do this, you need to start by being honest with yourself and clarifying your personal and professional goals. Ask the question: “What do I really want?” and then be willing to do what it takes to achieve those goals.

Here are some steps you can take to help prepare for a conversation with your supervisor:

 1.      Define your goals. Do you want to be a partner? Move into management? Transfer to another department? If your goals are only loosely defined, your supervisor won’t be able to help you get there.

2.      Write down your goals. Before you meet with your manager, develop a fully articulated plan. It can be helpful to use the SMART framework- making sure your goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.

3.      Know what you want to say. It can be helpful to rehearse what you want to say to your supervisor beforehand. An example of how to begin might be:I’d like to talk to you about what I’m not doing well right now, and get some guidance on how I can become more effective. I think what has been happening is that I’m taking on too much work just to prove I can do it. But I don’t just want to do the work, I want to do it well.”

4.      Understand your limits. Most CPAs are willing to work hard to get ahead. But there is only so much a person can do before physical and emotional issues begin to surface. Remember to be realistic about the workload you can handle.

5.      Don’t take the easy way out. When you are overwhelmed, it might feel like the best answer is to look for a new job. But many who follow that route soon find they are faced with similar challenges, just in a new setting. It’s often best to work within your familiar environment to learn to overcome perceived challenges.

Finally, keep in mind that preparation is key to a good outcome, but good timing is equally important. If your supervisor is facing a looming deadline or some other challenge, it may be best to wait a while until the deadline is met or challenge is overcome—just don’t wait too long. Also, be prepared to hear constructive criticism, along with actionable steps you can take that can help you reach your goals.  As the late Stephen R. Covey said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

Donna W. Salter, Senior Manager- Young Member Initiatives, American Institute of CPAs.  


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