Episode 1 covers the topic of “managing up” with Marco Rogers (@polotek on Twitter). Marco was previously an engineering manager and director at companies like Yammer, Clover Health, and Lever, and is now happily writing code for Mode Analytics. We talk about what managing up means, Marco’s journey to understanding managing up, how any of us can do the same, and how we can help those we manage to learn to manage up.
JENNIFER: Welcome to Storytime with Managers, a podcast microseries by Cohere.
Hi, I’m Jennifer Tu. And I’m here with Marco Rogers to talk about managing up. Marco, would you mind introducing yourself?
MARCO: Of course. Thanks, Jennifer, for having me. I’m Marco Rogers. I am an engineer, an engineering manager. I’ve been in the management role for seven or eight years, I would say. As a manager and a director and kind of head of engineering at smaller places, and so good a bit of experience there and kind of currently looking for my next role.
JENNIFER: Awesome. I understand that you’re giving a talk on managing up at The Lead Dev coming up pretty soon.
MARCO: Oh, my talk on the lead dev are at The Lead Dev in April is a bit different. It’s going to be about creating levels and career ladders for engineers. So, maybe you’re kind of referring to something else. But I’ve talked about managing and managing up in other contexts.
JENNIFER: I guess I just wanted you to be talking about managing up at The Lead Dev.
MARCO: I’m happy to do that, too, if people will invite me.
JENNIFER: Yes, they should. Before we get too much further, can you remind me what managing up is or what it means?
MARCO: Yeah, I do think that we should spend some time kind of defining what it is. I usually use my own definitions and understanding for these things rather than kind of getting it out of a book. So, I hope that the listeners will excuse me if it just doesn’t sound like something that they’ve heard before. But basically, when we talk about managing up, if you have a manager, that person’s job is to manage you. But anybody who’s kind of an employee also needs to understand that they have a relationship with that manager that goes in the other direction as well. And managing up is about how do you figure out how to build the right relationship with your manager? How do you get the outcomes that you want out of your relationship with them? And it means kind of putting some thought into how you interact with them. And so, managing up usually refers to getting better at creating the right kind of interactions with your manager instead of kind of taking it for granted that it’s their problem to do.
JENNIFER: You mentioned managing up in the context of a relationship. Are there other things that we should be thinking about in terms of how we should be personally individually managing up or are there general principles that anyone can apply when managing up?
MARCO: I think they both are true. I think a lot of times, we kind of get into talking about the general principles, but I’m a person who feels that general principles tend to break down really quickly in context because every organization is different. And it’s easy to say that, but I really mean it. Every organization is going to be different. And every manager, the role is going to actually be different at different companies. Some managers are tasked with being very hands on and having really deep knowledge into the work that happens on their team. And other managers, that’s not at all the expectation that is placed on them. And so, you’re going to have a very different kind of relationship with those two types of managers. And thus, your input and your goals for managing up are going to be very different. So, I don’t think that general advice goes very far with a few exceptions.
JENNIFER: What are the exceptions?
MARCO: Well, we can get into the controversial stuff really quickly, if you like. But one of the exceptions is that I do feel that every employee would do themselves a service if they figure out how their manager prefers to communicate and try to adapt to that, rather than asking a manager to adapt to you. You should adapt to how your manager likes to communicate, because communicating well with your manager is like 80% of it, to be honest. You can’t do any of the other things that we might talk about if you’re not communicating well with your manager. And so, adapting to how they prefer to communicate, I do think, is generally a good idea.
JENNIFER: How do you know how your manager likes to communicate? It’s not like they come with a manual. I know some managers do. I’ve never had a manager who came with a manual. But even if I did, I don’t know if I could trust that manual to be correct.
MARCO: Some of them do come with manuals. There’s a whole movement to get managers to write I guess what they’re calling a user manual or a read me to talk about some of these things. I have mixed feelings about it, to be honest.
JENNIFER: It’s like API documentation, right? When it’s right, then it’s good. And when it’s not, you’re in a world of hurt.
MARCO: Right. I think the big problem is the one that you’re describing, which is, is the person whose writing it, this manager, actually going to be good at doing some self-reflection on who they are and how they operate? And I think, you can even kind of look at studies that show that a lot of us are not very good at self-reflection. So, asking a person to describe themselves and how they are is maybe not the best angle. But there are some things that we can be more reliable about, and I think that the way that we prefer to communicate is one of those things. I think it falls into that category. So for instance, I’ll just be really upfront, as a manager, I’m really bad at e-mail. That might seem counter-intuitive. We were supposed to live in e-mail, but I’m really bad at it. If you send me an e-mail, I’m going to be bad at responding. I’m very, very good in person. So if you come up to me and talk, we’re going to have a better conversation than if I’m trying to parse out something really complicated over text. And that’s something that, if you know that about me and you kind of use that to your advantage, you’re going to have a better time with me. And some managers are the exact opposite. They don’t do well in in-person conversations, especially when they get difficult. But if you keep things in text and they have time to think and respond more thoughtfully, you’re gonna have a better time with them. So that’s just a small example of how I think the communication piece fits in.
JENNIFER: Let’s say that I’m starting a new job with a new manager or maybe I have an existing job and I get a new manager, how do I start figuring out how to best communicate with my manager?
MARCO: I think you should ask them. [Chuckles] That may be a deeply unsatisfying answer to a lot of people, but you’re often going to find yourself in a place where you feel like you have to guess. There’s a lot of instances like that in the working world. But this, in this case, there are some things that it’s just really appropriate to just ask. And you could phrase it like, “Hey, I want to make sure that we’re getting to know each other and finding the best way to communicate. So how do you prefer to communicate? Should I come talk to you in person? Do you prefer emails? Can you give me any insight into that?” It really is that simple. Just ask them. And you may have to ask them a few times because they’re going to have to think about it or something. But yeah, this is one of those things. You can just ask.
JENNIFER: You make that sound really easy.
MARCO: [Laughs] I don’t know if it’s easy. I do think that every time you’re kind of in this situation where there’s a power dynamic involved, there are any number of things that can make it difficult. And I think my goal here with you is to at least try to give some perspective on what’s appropriate. It’s appropriate for you to just ask. And I also like to kind of give people the words and say you can do it. It doesn’t mean you won’t be nervous about it. [Chuckles] You probably will.
JENNIFER: I’m kind of curious when you first started to realize, “Oh, I need to be managing up,” were you already an engineering manager then or were you still slinging code, being an individual contributor?
MARCO: That’s a great question. I think that there’s actually two answers to it, to be honest. I think early in my career, I was good at managing up only because I assumed – I already came in kind of knowing that they have all the power and my goal is to distinguish myself and put myself in a position to be evaluated well. That’s the mindset that I came in with. And I think that’s just a factor of where I come from. And honestly, what I find is that not everybody comes in with that mindset of like ‘you are being evaluated and you should probably try to figure out how to put yourself in the best position’. And instead, there’s a different mindset. It’s not necessarily wrong. There’s a different mindset that says, “You’re gonna come in and just do your best work. And then the people above you will notice and recognize you for it.” And that can happen regardless of your direct relationships. And I get where that comes from, I think. But I do feel like I want to shift people over to really thinking more about their relationships.
So to answer your question, I think I was focused on managing up earlier in my career. I think I got worse at it over time. [Chuckles]
JENNIFER: You got worse at it?
MARCO: I did it. I got worse over time. My story in this respect is probably atypical. But as I got older, as I got more of an understanding about how things work, both internal to the company and tech in general, I just learned a lot. Like I grew a lot, and I came to have much stronger convictions about what I wanted the workplace to be like. And I think in that respect, I came into relationships with managers with more of my own agenda, particularly when I became a manager. I’m a manager, but I also have a boss. And my bosses tend to be executives, like higher up in the company. And I would find it more difficult to manage up with them because I came in with assumptions about what I wanted them to do. And so, that was harder.
JENNIFER: So, it’s not like you were managing up less, but how you’re managing up became harder as a manager compared to when you were an individual contributor.
MARCO: Correct. That’s probably a better way to put it. I think, my ability to manage up changed because my incentives were different. My job was different.
JENNIFER: Yeah, that’s a good point. I wonder if you could go back in time to when you first became a manager. What kind of advice you would give to yourself then for how to change your approach to managing up?
MARCO: If I was going back to when I first became a manager, the story that I tell is always the same, which is like it was very jarring to me and I was very lost for like a solid six months. I was very lost because at the company, I was at a company called Yammer as a senior engineer and I got offered the management role. And it was pretty common kind of scenario in that respect. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but that seemed like the logical next step at that organization. So, I said yes. And what I expected was that I would go into these conversations with managers, I would find out how they operate and how they made decisions, and I would start to learn how to do that myself. But that I would have peers and I would have input and I would have mentorship. And none of that was true. It was kind of like stepping behind the curtain and finding out that everything is a mess. The curtain analogy is like if you’re watching a play, like everything out in the stage is really tight and well-rehearsed and go smoothly. But behind the curtain, it’s chaos as they try to make things work before it has to go onstage. And that’s what it felt like to me. It felt like nobody really understood what they were doing. And it was weird because my experience at that same company as an engineer was very different. I always felt like we knew what we were doing. It always felt like I got clear input about things, or at least I was able to have clear conversations to figure it out. And then when I stepped behind that curtain and I then became responsible for helping to figure out what we were doing, I was just like, “I have no idea what’s going on right now. And nobody’s telling me.” And that was just really jarring for a long time.
And so, I think for me, if I was bringing it back to this conversation about managing up, I also didn’t know how to form relationships with other managers and my bosses. I was in that place where I was waiting for them to tell me how to do this job. If you really think about it, that’s a little bit different from when you are an individual contributor. Like if you’re an engineer, you already know how to code. You know what the job is. They can tell you where to do the thing and where to point you to the code or whatever. But they’re not telling you like you’re waiting like, “Hey, can you teach me how to code?” That’s just not the relationship. But when you go into a management role, there’s a whole set of new skills, there’s a whole set of new activities, and you do not know how to do them. And so, the relationship is very different.
JENNIFER: Interesting. Do you feel like just having that context of knowing things would be different would be enough to have taken you in the earlier, sooner direction for how to manage up more effectively?
MARCO: I would do it very differently today if I were doing it again. And yes, if I knew going in that there weren’t going to be hard answers, that there wasn’t gonna be any onboarding, and that my goal was to start to figure out what was needed and to pull the information that I needed from the people who were available to me, like it wouldn’t get pushed to me, I needed to pull it and I would be more deliberate about doing that. And honestly, that is another kind of, I would even call that advice that I would give in this managing up conversation to other individual contributors or managers. Don’t don’t expect the information and the context about what you’re supposed to do to be pushed to you. You should go get it right. And that’s about kind of forming the right relationships with the people above you. And if you can be more deliberate about gathering that information and putting context around it, you’ll get to the point of feeling more successful more quickly.
JENNIFER: Yes, that’s really good advise. Earlier, you mentioned that sometimes there’s two different approaches to people and their managers in that relationship, and there’s one group of people who come in and kind of expect, “I’ll do good work and that’s going to get recognized by my manager.” I was wondering if you’ve ever managed someone who has that mentality.
MARCO: Who has that mentality of waiting to be recognized, you mean?
MARCO: As a person, I’ve kind of managed lots of teams, relatively large sized teams up to say 25 people, not reporting to me directly, but kind of underneath me. And so, I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of direct reports. And there’s a lot a wide spectrum, so I think I’m wary in this stage of doing the kind of “generalization about kind of how people are”. But I think to your question, there’s lots of different kinds of people and there’s a set of people who are really focused on kind of the direct kind of tasks or work or projects that they’re given and they do those things, and they don’t really ask any questions about how they’re being evaluated. And that’s not to say that that’s a bad move, but it can be a challenge for them when it comes time to be evaluated, because they’re almost always surprised by whatever comes out of it. They have not actually been looking for those signals to kind of get a sense for how they’re being evaluated over time. And then they kind of run into these kind of scheduled performance review markers and they’re not prepared. They’re not ready. And that can be a big problem.
JENNIFER: Have you found yourself able to help people shift their mentality to be more proactive at managing up? And if you have, have you found that valuable as a manager?
MARCO: Let me see how to answer that question. Have I been to stuff like getting people to shift? What I usually do as a manager, maybe it’s more helpful for me to talk about how do I respond to this context that I have being on the management side. And I do a few things. One is I kind of always assume that people aren’t asking me enough questions about how they’re doing and how they’re being evaluated. So I just try to push it to them. I try to be a manager where you do get more information pushed to you that you didn’t know that you needed. And I found that people really appreciate that, but it also kind of creates a deficit. Like if they go to another manager that doesn’t do that, it kind of throws everything off. I tend to kind of ruin the reputation of other managers by doing that, to be honest.
JENNIFER: Oh, no. “Why can’t you be like Marco? Marco is a great manager.”
MARCO: [Laughs] And this probably sounds like me humble bragging, but I don’t consider it that. I just think that that’s my personal management style. I’m like, “Here are the things you probably want to know that you might not know to ask.” And then that creates questions for other managers that their people weren’t asking them. That’s just a dynamic that I’ve run into a lot. So, I started to kind of push more context to people. But the other thing that I think I would like to try to do is prompt my reports to give me information about their goals. Like, “Let’s have a conversation where I push you to be more proactive and tell me what you expect to happen. Whether that be your goals for technical growth, whether that be your goals for raises and promotions at the company, whether that be things that you want to see me do that you might not find a way to tell me unless I make sure I open the door and kind of create the right context.” But you should have your own goals.
I’m trying to kind of find a way to answer your question, because on the other end of the spectrum, there is a set of people who always do that. They always do that naturally. I go into conversations with them as their manager and they they have a list for me. They’re like, “Here’s what I was thinking about we should talk about today.” And along that spectrum, people have very different experiences with management and with kind of trying to be successful at their organization. So I do try to push people to think about what they want to happen and what they would do if they had input into that, if they had influence on what happens. What would they do? Well, they tell me. And I think I have to create that prompt.
JENNIFER: And did you find that effective? Did people learn to ask those questions? Did you find that they weren’t surprised when you had those performance reviews?
MARCO: It helped a lot. It helped a lot in that case of kind of being ready for performance reviews and being more of a shared conversation rather than feeling new and then being surprised. I think it helps a lot with that. Whether those habits persisted, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if I kind of made people more effective at managing up going forward. I don’t know if I have that kind of like historical data, but I hope so. I like to think so.
JENNIFER: So hopefully they got something other than ‘why can’t you be like Marco’ out of it.
MARCO: [Laughs] I hope I’m not kind of sending people out with things like that. Not just because I’m self-conscious about it, but because I think that will also color your relationship with other managers. If you kind of build this picture of what you want your manager to be like and then you go get one that’s not that, it’s just going to make you frustrated and annoyed.
JENNIFER: Yeah. I think that’s all the time we have for today. If people want to hear more of your thoughts on this or reach out to you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
MARCO: Oh, yeah, for sure. Probably the best way for them to do that is to hit me up on Twitter. I’m on Twitter a lot and my DMs are open. I’m @polotek on Twitter. I usually kind of read all of my DMs and I’m kind of happy for people to reach out. I’d also be really okay with people kind of connecting with me on LinkedIn. If they send me a message and reference this podcast, I’d be up for that as well.
JENNIFER: Cool. Thank you so much for talking with me about managing up.
MARCO: Thanks, Jennifer. This was fun.
JENNIFER: Thanks for listening to Storytime with Managers by Cohere. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod and we are edited by Bryant from Zinc. If you like this episode and want to hear more, tell us on Twitter. We are @wecohere.
Hey, this is Jennifer, and I have one post-show note for you. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve recorded. So unsurprisingly, Marco is now employed by Mode Analytics. Congratulations, Mode.