5 Secrets to Managing Up

I’ve been a leadership coach for over ten years.  Most of my clients are either middle managers or high potentials and one of the biggest issues clients bring to me is how to manage up.  Managing up can be described as a method of career development that’s based on consciously working for the mutual benefit of yourself and your boss.  It can be a struggle for newly promoted managers or newly acquired managers or individual contributors looking for a leg up on the next project or promotion.  Interacting with your boss can be fraught with insecurity and vulnerabilities.  On one hand you want to be confident and knowledgeable, but you also don’t want to step on any toes or overreach. You want to be persuasive but not overbearing.  It’s a delicate balance.

Here are my five go to tools for managing up:

Power Pose

Ever since I read Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, and viewed her Ted Talk on the power pose, I have suggested it to my students taking the SHRM-SCP exam, my clients applying for a new position and to my clients who are headed into a managing up conversation with their boss.  Basically, the mind follows what the body says.  If you stand like Wonder Woman or Superman (think hands confidently on your hips, shoulders back, feet shoulder width apart and head held high) for two minutes, your brain starts to follow what your body is telling it, i.e., you are a bad@$$. I have personally done this before a first date, in a bathroom stall before a job interview, and right before a public speaking engagement.   It’s been proven that your cortisol (stress hormone) goes down and your testosterone increases.  Increases in testosterone helps improve mood and health in both men and women.  Before you head into that uncomfortable conversation on getting on that plum project, try the power pose.

What would it take?

Over thirty years ago, I wanted to get a promotion to a General Manager position for the restaurant chain I was working for at the time. I knew it was between me and a guy named Randy. Randy had more longevity with the company and we both had recently been through a management development course. I set up a meeting with my boss’ boss and said “What would it take for me to be the next General Manager?” He suggested a few things like learning the inventory system so I could handle month end on my own.  Inside of three months, I was promoted over Randy.  I firmly believe that if I hadn’t asked “What would it take?” I never would have gotten that promotion. From reading the book “How Women Rise”, I know that women can assume that their boss knows about their hard work, merits and aspirations.  By asking, “What would it take?” you are clearly putting a stake in the ground of what you want and asking for support in getting there.

Third person

Talking about yourself in the third person can help control your nerves before having a one-on-one with your boss.  It’s easy when we use self-talk in the first person to trash your self-esteem.  “I can’t believe I’m late again, I’m an idiot!” “Ugh, I’m never going to get that promotion, I’m not good enough.” When I switch to the third person, I’m more careful, positive and respectful as if I’m talking to a good friend. ” Cathy, you’ve got this.” It’s also helpful in keeping rumination at bay.  It puts distance between you and your objective and calms your nerves.

Excited and Curious

I’ve learned to rephrase anxiety or concerns into excitement or curiosity.  It’s a way to reframe from disempowering thoughts like “I’m too nervous to talk to my boss about the widget project” to empowering thoughts like “I’m excited to talk to my boss about the widget project.” I change my self-narrative from “I’m afraid to move to a new town” to “I’m curious to move to a new town.” The use of the language we use in our head can be either debilitating or empowering.  I try to use empowering ones.

A few strong points

I recently read Think Again by Adam Grant. In the book he takes a look at Harish Natarajan who has won three dozen debate tournaments.  One of the key takeaways from Natarajan was to focus in on just a few solid points to persuade your audience, in this case, your boss. Before reading the book, I could barrage my boss with twelve reasons why we should add a new benefit for our employees.  It turns out that if there is weakness in a single reason, it causes collateral damage to the rest. The audience (your boss) focuses on the one weakness.  If you base your rationale on one or two solid reasons versus eleven good reasons and one weak reason, the solid reasons win out.  It’s quality versus quantity.  Focus on one or two strong points when having the managing up conversation.

It’s ironic that most of these secrets are about managing yourself and your own mindset instead of managing your boss or your boss’ boss. Heading into a conversation with your boss is more of an inside game on controlling your clarity of thought and emotions through your own self talk. What are your secrets to managing up?

What I did when he called me “Sir”. Lessons in self-acceptance.

I rented a car last month at the Philadelphia Airport.  As I drove up to the car rental booth to leave, the gentleman in the booth said, “Good afternoon Sir…I mean Ma’am.”  This is not the first time I have been called “Sir”.  But it is the first time I actually didn’t get upset and decide to grow my hair out to at least Julia Roberts-length, wear fake eyelashes or put on low-cut shirts.  My lame attempt at pushing my woman-ness to the forefront so that not another soul on the planet will ever get my gender wrong again!

self acceptance

I remember distinctly the first time someone called me “Sir.” I was at the Concord Mall, home for Christmas Break from college in the middle of my senior year.  I had just gotten what we referred to back then as the 80’s “corporate do”.  It was a short haircut to help make one look more like a professional and less like a co-ed.  I was milling around a Thom McAn shoe store and a guy came up behind me and said “May I help you, Sir?”  I was mortified.  He caught his error almost immediately but as we can see by this post, I have not forgotten it.  Ever. And this is some 30 years later.  In my twenties, my solution was to look for something to “prove” I was a woman At.All.Times.  Happily, that is not my solution now.

So you are probably wondering how I can react differently now.  Here are my lessons in self-acceptance:

  • Stand in their shoes. It’s really embarrassing to call someone by the wrong gender (unless it’s what they want to be identified as).  I imagine that the guy at the shoe shop and the guy from the rental car place were just as embarrassed as I was.  Empathize for their embarrassment and it makes it easier to let go of your own.  That sounds counter intuitive but give it a try.  I think you’ll be surprised.
  • Tap into the energy. I reflected on the mistake as I drove away.  Perhaps I was exuding power.  The attendant felt that power as I approached.  As Amy Cuddy’s work has shown, when someone sees a non-anatomical figure walking powerfully, 80% of the time they assume it’s a man.  I remember in my final coaching class with CRR Global, I was facilitating with a tall, charismatic man name Michael.  At the end, I remember the insightful instructor Marita Fridjhon said, “This is a power couple.”  I realized that I had taken on Michael’s power. So take that testosterone driven energy and tap into it. Own it.
  • Test your assumptions. I had taken note at the airport about how many more men travel solo than women.  In fact, I rarely see women traveling alone, sitting in restaurants alone and checking into hotels alone.  I don’t know that many women who are comfortable eating in restaurants alone, heck, I wasn’t comfortable with it when I first started traveling for business some 25 years ago.  So for all I know, that attendant assumed a solo driver was a man. Check your assumptions.
  • I have been practicing meditation for over three years. I have learned to separate from the reaction and make space for a pause.  This helps me get off the self-critical talk that thirty years ago was, “OMG, he thinks I’m a man.  I am too tall.  I am too fat.  I am unlovable.” Crazy talk.  I am sure that I ruminated about it for months as I desperately sought to be more less masculine.   But now?  I can easily respond with a friendly smile and say, “Oops.”  I love Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier, where he says that meditation is like “…getting behind a waterfall.”  All those thoughts are flying by but you can step back and not get attached to it.  Practicing mindfulness helped me stay out of the drama and it can help you.
  • I will never be petite. It is impossible to be 5’2 when I am 5’8.  It is what it is.  I’ll also never be an astronaut, or ballet dancer or president of the United States.  I’ll never be a father, or a judge or cowboy.  But what I can be is a great author, fabulous mother and most importantly, make a difference in people’s lives every day.  This is not dependent on me being more petite or less masculine.   I’ve learned that I can accept myself as I am.  I am perfectly imperfect.  Freckles and all.  Accept yourself as you are.  There is less of a battle that way.

I am me.  Can you be you?

6 Steps to Taking Action. Now.

You are bored.  You check your phone for some kind of notification.  It’s a new “like” on Instagram, or Facebook or LinkedIn or some other social media site.  Pretty soon your entire Sunday morning has gone by with scanning aimlessly on various sites.  You meant to start writing that article.  Or mow the grass.  Or call your brother.  But somehow the whole day has seemed to slip away to screen time with nothing productive to show for it.

Take Action

This disengagement from the here and now rolls on.  The constant distraction of “screen” time whether it be web surfing, channel surfing or playing video games is taking us away from the present moment.  And when you are distracted?  You procrastinate.  You put the project off.  It’s too overwhelming to take the first step so you escape into screen time.  Or as Dr. Hallowell says in his book, Crazy Busy, “A modern addiction, screen-sucking is like smoking cigarettes: Once you’re hooked, it is extremely hard to quit.” When you are sucked into a screen, you are caught up there and you are disengaged from everything else.

So here are 6 steps to taking action.  Now:

  1. Cut out the distractions. Full disclosure here – I have been trying to get started on this post for the last two hours on a Sunday morning.  I had my phone next to me.  I kept picking it up and looking for notifications.  So what did I do?  I put it in the kitchen to charge.  All my social media sites are shut now and my email is closed on my computer.  No more distractions.  So now I am finally writing.  I know there are apps out there that will shut down notifications while you are on your phone or laptop.  I try and cut out distractions by eliminating the notifications through the settings on my electronic devices.  You cannot focus on the project in front of you when your mind is distracted.
  1. Work on a computer or laptop instead of something smaller. As Amy Cuddy found in her studies outlines in her book, Presence, “As hypothesized, compared to participants working on larger devices (e.g. a Mac computer), participants who worked on smaller devices (e.g. an iPad) behaved less assertively– waiting longer to interrupt an experimenter who had made them wait, or not interrupting at all.” So you are making yourself small when you are hunched over your phone, less important. They call this “text neck” or “iHunch.”  As the study showed, it makes you less assertive.  This must be part of the reason why I rarely write when I am on the road since I don’t travel with a laptop.  I’m turned off by the feeling of being small and powerless on my phone.
  1. Eat that frog. This is a phrase coined by Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”  Brian Tracy advocates starting with the biggest ugliest item on your to-do list first thing.  It helps you have momentum to start taking action on other things. Otherwise, you start filling your day with little items that don’t have an impact or really matter.  Pick the thing with the most significant impact and start doing it first.  You also have more energy first thing in the morning and, for most people, it’s when you do your best work.  First and foremost, Eat that Frog!
  1. Make bite size action items. So instead of Write a book as your action item list Start outline for book or Decide title for book or Research three articles for book. Whew.  Sounds a lot easier than taking on an entire book in a day.   When you are overwhelmed with the whole project, you become immobilized. Frozen.  Anxious.  Take one little bite and take it on.  It’s empowering.   The feedback I get from most of my clients is that through coaching they’ve been able to break things down and realize positive forward progress.   Smash up the project into pieces that will spur action.
  1. Set a timer for thirty minutes. You will think I am crazy but I don’t exactly look forward to writing. I’m fine once I get started.  I get in the zone or flow and it’s a great experience.  But getting started?  I have a hard time getting off the starting block.  So I looked at my clock on my computer and said, “OK.  Give it 30 minutes.  Devote 30 minutes to writing this post.”  So once I get past coming up with a title and direction for the post I am in the zone.  It’s now been an hour and all I need is one more bullet.  I’m long past the 30 minutes but it gets me in the chair and off to a start.  See if setting a timer will get you to start.
  1. Do it now. After teaching several classes of Franklin Covey’s “5 Choices to Extraordinary Results“, I realized that I was procrastinating with little tasks.  I would think, “If I can’t finish it before my next meeting, then forget it.  I’ll move it out until tomorrow.”  Suddenly I realized that I didn’t have to completely finish the task before the next meeting.  There is a perfectionism tied up in the attempt to get items finished before the meeting.  So now if I have 5 minutes to spare before a meeting, I will knock out paying some bills or draft an email to a client.  I no longer wait for the perfect window to complete the task.  What I have found is that I can complete a lot more than I thought by not waiting for the perfect moment.  It’s amazing what I can get done in 5 minutes.  Do it now.

I remember a coach of mine, Michele Woodward, told me some time ago that what I get done on my worst day is more that most folks get done on their best day.  Acknowledge that you are more productive than the average worker.  Envision that you are productive and action oriented and you will be.  But first?  Put away your phone.

Sit Up Straight. How to Take Up Space.

I had the pleasure of hearing Amy Cuddy speak last week at the WorkHuman Conference.  Amy has the second most viewed TedTalk and there is a good reason why.  She has terrific advice on how to be able to handle pressure without succumbing to fear and anxiety.  It was quite the thought provoking talk on how to be “Present.”

The interesting thing is that Amy models what she speaks.  She walks the talk in front of a crowd of some 1000 onlookers.  She is a petite woman but regardless she is a power house on the stage.  In addition, she points to the science to back up her claims and I’m going to outline them here.Sit Up Straight

Sitting up straight and other advice on being more powerful:

  • The 2 Minute Power Pose. I’ve been giving this advice to my students at Duke University for the last few years.   Right before we take the final exam, I have everyone stand up and pose like Wonder Woman or Super Man (whichever makes you feel more powerful) and we count to 120.  Studies have shown that doing the power pose for 2 minutes increases testosterone which makes you more assertive, confident, risk tolerant and competitive.  In addition, your cortisol drops with makes you less stressed, less anxious, more secure, and less fearful.  One of my students said after doing the power pose, “I’m going to do every day.”  What’s two minutes if you can go through the day more powerful? So I’ve been working on how I sleep as well.  It’s not like your mind isn’t reading your body while it sleeps.  No more fetal position for me!  I’ve been working on the power pose while I sleep.
  • Sit Up Straight. Turns out your mother’s advice was correct.  As Amy said, your mind and body are constantly conversing.  So whatever your body is emulating, the mind is readying.  She didn’t like “fake it till you make it” but rather “fake it until you become it.”  She asked everyone to look at their posture.  Suddenly we were all sitting up in our seats.  I’m sitting up straight as I write this.  When I sit up straight I feel more alert, more authoritative, more powerful.  One small change can make the difference in your entire day.  So imagining a string at the back of your neck and pull yourself up.
  • Don’t Cross Your Arms. This one is SO difficult for me.  It makes you appear defensive.  I am constantly crossing my arms, especially if a room is cold.  But when Amy modeled crossing her arms on stage?  She looked smaller.    Timid and weak.  So now I imagine myself in that important interview or project meeting.  If it happens to be in a cold room?  Or just by habit I cross my arms?  It’s not likely to be successful.  So habit or no.  Cold room or no.  Keep those arms open.
  • Think about how you walk. A power walk has more of an exaggerated swing to the arms.  Your legs have a longer stride. You posture is tall and erect.  Walking with purpose tells your body that you are powerful.  You are bold.  You are in control.  I’ve recounted a story before from my twenties where I was lost in Harlem one summer evening and being followed by some young men.  I turned on my power walk (I didn’t realize at the time that it would have a powerful effect).  Nobody was messing with me.  My fear and anxiety were dampened down and I got to where I was going safely without incident.
  • Own your space. I’m a tall woman.  I’ve spent a lot of life trying to appear petite.  To deny my presence if you will.  I’d find myself around petite women and I try to shrink myself.  This is not productive.  I remember in my final coaching class with CRR Global, I was facilitating with a tall, charismatic man name Michael.  At the end, I remember the insightful instructor, Marita Fridjhon said, “This is a power couple.”  I realized that I had taken on Michael’s power.  I owned my space, my taller than the average woman body.  Accept your body large or small and own it.
  • Don’t fill in the void with your voice. Another huge learning experience for me is to accept silence.  Powerful people don’t fill space with their voice.  They lower their voice and speak slowly.  As Amy says in her book Presence, “When people feel powerful or are assigned to high-power roles in experiments, they unconsciously lower their voice frequency, or pitch, making their voices expand and sound ‘bigger.'” Our voices are affected by anxiety and threat- both of which cause us to speak at a high pitch.” Power up and lower your voice.

Be powerful.