Managing Up as a Product Manager
Managing up is one of the most underrated skills as a product manager. Product managers spend a lot of time managing laterally: designers, engineers, and stakeholders across the organization. Therefore, it can be appealing to treat your manager as just another type of stakeholder, and upwards management as another type of stakeholder management.
However, that approach isn’t ideal. Your manager is in a unique position. They can coach you and support you. They can open up opportunities and promote you. And if they’re not happy with your performance, it’s not going to be great for your career prospects. Therefore, maintaining a good relationship with your manager is paramount.
Aim for mutual leverage
The goal of any manager / report relationship should be mutual leverage: the manager is getting more done because of the report, and the report is getting more done because of the manager.
From the perspective of the manager, this is quite clear: for example, the reason that a Director of Product Management has four Product Managers as reports is that this means more impact than if the Director was trying to product manage everything in their area themselves. The manager spends a few hours a week discussing with each report, and the impact is many times that because the report spends their whole week working based on these discussions.
It also works from the perspective of the report, though: a little bit of time invested in aligning with the manager can multiply the impact. Some examples: ensuring alignment on the direction of a project early on can reduce time spent exploring options that do not align with the manager’s vision; escalating a conflict between stakeholders to the manager can achieve faster resolution; or getting feedback on a proposed solution can improve the overall quality and impact of the finished product.
As a product manager, you should be striving to continuously increase the leverage in both directions. This means increasing your impact and/or decreasing the time your manager has to spend managing you (increasing your manager’s leverage), as well as getting your manager to help you improve your impact in the most effective way (increasing your leverage).
One thing worth noting is that the two directions of leverage can sometimes be in conflict with each other: escalating too many problems means a lot of leverage for the report (since they don’t have to spend time solving those problems), but reduces the leverage for the manager (since they now have to invest time solving their report’s problems). As a report, it is therefore crucial that you identify the most critical points of leverage, where a little bit of time investment on the part of your manager will have outsized returns for you. In addition, you should do everything possible to minimize the time investment required from your manager through thorough preparation.
Understand your goals and challenges
The most important prerequisite to effective upward management and increasing mutual leverage is understanding your own goals and challenges — in other words, what you are trying to achieve and what you are struggling with the most on the way there. They should primarily be the product goals you are responsible for (eg. completing a project, achieving a key result, or increasing a KPI), but they could also be professional development goals or even personal goals.
Understanding your goals and challenges helps understand how you can leverage your manager to overcome the challenges most effectively and efficiently.
Understand your manager’s goals and challenges
From the above it then clearly follows that in order to increase mutual leverage, you need to also understand your manager’s goals and challenges. The way you provide leverage to your manager is by being their extra pair of hands working towards their goals. Again, these goals will primarily be product goals, but other types of goals can be relevant as well: if your manager is angling for a promotion and the big project you own needs to be a success for that to happen, that’s very relevant information — it means that they will likely want to be more closely involved and that requests for support will be accepted more eagerly than on other circumstances.
With the high-level understanding of mutual leverage as well as both parties’ goals and challenges established, let’s turn to some concrete upward management advice.
Say what you will do, do it, then say what you’ve done
The core of successful upward management is dependability. If your manager knows that you will uphold your commitments, it reduces their mental burden and time involvement immensely. Think about the inverse situation for a second. If you don’t always get your tasks done, your manager will effectively have to add all of your tasks to their to-do list — not to actually do them, but to check that they’ve been done. Of course, checking in doesn’t require as much time as doing the task, but it’s still a huge overhead.
So the first step is always going to be making sure that you follow through on your commitments by following effective task management practices. However, that’s not really upward management yet, that’s just PM 101. The upward management part is bracketing each commitment with announcing that you will do it and then announcing completion.
Of course, you shouldn’t do this for each task — the most important ones are sufficient. Also, the announcement part should be made as organic as possible — for example, by stating in a meeting, in an email thread or in a Slack discussion: “I will take care of XYZ”. This shows that you are taking ownership of that particular task. Then, make sure the task is taken care of, and follow up with the relevant people: “I said that I would take care of XYZ, so here are the results.” Over time, this repeated pattern establishes that you are dependable and reduces the need for your manager to keep track of your commitments, and therefore increases leverage.
Since this pattern reduces the need for your manager to micro-manage you, it also increases your autonomy in when you prioritize which task. It even increases autonomy in terms of which tasks you prioritize to take on — if your manager sees you actively taking ownership of important tasks and following up on them, they are less likely to feel the need to assign particular tasks to you.
Own the direction and enable course correction
Following on from the previous point, you maximize mutual leverage and your own autonomy by owning the direction and enabling your manager to course correct as necessary. What this means in practice depends a little bit on your level, but in general it boils down to always having a proposal what to do next, and then getting your manager’s feedback. As a junior product manager, this will mean very tactical next steps for your project; as a senior product manager it might mean a vision and roadmap for the team.
The approach remains the same, though: instead of asking for input on what the next step should be, come in with a proposal. The worst that can happen is that it’s not aligned with what your manager was thinking, and they will help you understand their perspective. Even then, your manager will realize that you’ve been thinking ahead, which is always positive. Moreover, even in these cases, you will gain a better understanding of a particular topic by making a mistake and getting corrected than if you simply get told the “correct” solution by your manager.
Most scenarios are better than that, though. You might propose exactly what your manager would have suggested, which maximizes leverage for your manager since they have to spend very little time and energy thinking through next steps. Or, even better, you might have come up with a better next step than your manager would have — after all, you are closer to the problem than they are. Lastly, it’s also possible that adding your perspective and your manager’s leads to a different idea that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Don’t hide problems, talk them through
One thing to be careful with about the advice of owning the direction is not taking this too far. Especially if you are well-aligned with your manager, it can become the norm that your manager just always agrees to your proposed next steps. This feels great and grants you the maximum amount of autonomy. However, it can lead to getting more relaxed about getting feedback on the next steps and instead just going ahead and doing whatever you think is best.
This can become an issue when you are facing problems of unusual criticality — for example, big project delays, unexpected negative validation results, negative stakeholder or customer feedback, etc. In these cases, even if you are convinced that you know the best course of action, take extra time to talk it through with your manager. Nothing undermines a manager’s trust as much as finding out about a big problem after the fact or — even worse — from someone else.
Again, you don’t have to immediately escalate every problem to your manager. Spend some time thinking it through and talking with your immediate team, but then align the proposed plan of action with your manager. You can also use the technique of announcing what you will do to be on the safe side, for example: “Heads up: the engineering manager just told me that the delivery of the foobar feature might be delayed by 2 months because of some unexpected refactoring that’s needed. I am currently discussing potential next steps with the team and will share the proposed plan of action with you by end of week.” If you have a track record of following up on these commitments, your manager will likely leave you alone until you have the proposed plan, and there is no risk of your manager learning about these delays third hand.
Over-communicate, but do so efficiently
Continuing on the theme of avoiding unexpected surprises, you will often need to communicate your direction, status, and progress more frequently than feels natural. This is not unique to upward management, but applies whenever communicating something that you think about a lot to someone who doesn’t have the topic on top of their mind. By definition, your manager will spend less time thinking about your projects than you do, so in order to ensure that you stay aligned, you will have to communicate more frequently than you might think. This ensures that your manager doesn’t feel out of the loop and reduces the risk of going off too far in a direction that isn’t aligned with what your manager is thinking.
While this might feel restricting, it actually increases autonomy, since you are the one who controls when to communicate status and how to frame the message. If your manager starts feeling out of the loop, they might ask you for status updates at more inopportune times.
Over-communication means frequent communication, but it doesn’t mean lengthy. To the contrary: the more frequently you communicate, the more important it is that the communication is efficient. If each update is a page-long email, then at best it reduces leverage (since your manager needs to spend a lot of time reading those emails), and at worst it means your manager doesn’t have enough time to read them and you’re not getting the benefits of frequently updating your manager.
Giving more in-depth advice about efficient communication is a bit out of scope for this article; the main takeaway though is to ensure your communication can be read and digested as quickly as possible. One good way to do that is to think about what the most important takeaway or need for action of the communication is, and then start with that — everything else can come later in the message. This ensures that even if your manager only has time to skim the message, they still will get the gist.
Another important benefit to frequently communicating status is that you can spend time you have in 1:1 discussions not with status updates, but to conversations that help you.
Make best use of one-on-ones
One-on-one discussions should be the most important and impactful discussion forum between you and your manager, and should happen ideally on a weekly basis. Of course, how often these meetings happen and how they are organized depends on your manager (although you can always make suggestions if they aren’t happening frequently or well-organized).
One-on-ones are best for high-bandwidth conversations, where you go back and forth and dig deeply into problems. This is the best way to maximize leverage, where a little bit of time spent with your manager helps you be much more effective at your job.
To make sure that these high-bandwidth conversations about the most critical problems happen, you should come prepared to the meeting. This means knowing what questions you want to discuss, and what information is critical to know to begin the discussion. You can also think about how to best frame the question so that you get input from your manager on the most critical aspects of the problem.
As mentioned above, another recommendation to make sure that you can have impactful discussions in your one-on-one is to minimize the amount of status updates and broadcasting information (where one person talks and the other one just listens). Often, this kind of information can be shared in advance. While you can’t guarantee that your manager will have the time to consume the information asynchronously before the meeting, at least it allows them to do so.
The relationship with your manager is one of the most important relationships in your work life, and investing time into managing that relationship is time well spent. Of course, not every manager relationship is perfect, and some managers just don’t do a great job of managing. As a report, you won’t be able to fix all the flaws of your manager. However, you can do your best to try to get as much out of the relationship as possible (and maximize the leverage that your manager gets from you). I hope the thoughts in this article can help with that to some extent.