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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Influencing Upward: The Skill You Need to Get Ahead

Have you ever been in a situation where you feel like you just can’t get through to your boss?

Maybe you had what you thought was a breakthrough business idea get shot down before you could even really get into the details.

Or maybe you know you could create a much better deliverable for a client, if only given a few more days for the assignment. But when you ask your boss about extending the deadline, you’re told there’s no way that’ll fly.

Here’s the thing: It’s not just your boss being difficult. In fact, being able to get your point across and communicate persuasively with your superiors is a critical workplace skill that you have to develop. As Lori Carlin Proctor, senior retail supply leader with Procter and Gamble, put it, “To be an effective leader, you have to be a strong communicator. One of the most important areas of leading and communicating is with your own management.”

In my 15 years of experience coaching emerging leaders, I’ve come to believe that this art—also called “managing upward” or “influencing upward”—is one of the most important skills you can possess. And I recently sat down with Proctor and a few other senior leaders to get their tips for doing it well.

Here’s what they had to say.

1. Understand Your Leaders and Their Goals

“The better you understand your leaders, the easier your life will be, and the more successful you will be,” says Kim Strickland, a VP of finance for Walmart.

In other words, to begin to influence upward, you’ll need to start by learning what is important to your manager and the business, so that you can show how what you’re doing and asking for is relevant to his or her top priorities. “Understand your leaders, what’s important to them, their pain points, goals, and metrics,” echoes Linda Nordgren, vice president and general manager of merchandising with Safeway Inc. For example, is innovation a key priority for the company—or are ideas being tabled for now due to a focus on the bottom line? Is your boss in build-up mode or cost-cutting crunch time?

“Start with the high level strategic business objectives and then drill down into those—what do those objectives mean personally for your leader?” says Cyndi Mitchell, a C-level executive and advisor to technology companies. “In what areas is he or she feeling challenged and stretched? Where can you and your team help?”

Once you know what your boss is focused on, work backward to craft your messages, establishing a clear link between your most important talking points and his or her most important priorities. You’ll often hear leaders refer to “making a business case” instead of simply asking for what you want, and doing this well requires some creative problem-solving.

For example, if “delighting the customer” is the CEO’s buzzword for the quarter, but your boss is on the hook to reduce project schedule delays, don’t ask for an extension of your deadline. A more persuasive business case would be asking if he or she would consider having the team to work late to deliver, with the carrot of a half-day off next week.

Oh, and things change—so make a point to check in with your manager frequently to keep up to date with his or her most important goals and challenges.

2. Communicate in a Style That They Find Persuasive

Equally important to understanding what your manager is focused on is understanding his or her preferred method of communication and decision-making process. “Everyone makes decisions differently,” Strickland observes.

Try this experiment: Next time you present information to your boss, send an overview a day or two ahead of time and bring a hard copy to the meeting. Watch what happens: Does your manager study the entire document, or jump to the conclusion, looking for the bottom line? Or, had he or she obviously taken time to digest the fine print ahead of time? By understanding how someone takes in information, you can prepare future pitches in the form of communication that he or she is most at ease with.

How else can you you uncover communication and decision-making styles? Don't be afraid to ask your leader directly how he or she wants to be communicated with, advises Mitchell. “I always ask, ‘Do you want to be involved all the way through? We can update you on a daily basis, or we can have a status meeting every two weeks. What works for you? How much or little detail do you want to know?’” Or, as Nordgren suggests, “Observe how others communicate effectively with him or her.”

Once you know what your manager’s preferences are, you can adjust how you deliver your message for maximum impact. Next time you present a breakthrough business idea, you might send a data-driven principal engineer the spreadsheets three days before you meet, challenge a charismatic director of sales to a verbal game of ping-pong about its impact on customers, or walk a VP of strategy through a logical, step-by-step rationale.

3. Negotiate the Support You Need to Perform Successfully

One more key to your success, according to Proctor, is to know and agree upon your leaders’ expectations of you. It seems obvious, but it’s surprising how often business gets in the way of having a candid conversation about what’s required of you in your role.

So, take the lead and ask to meet and go over expectations. But don’t just follow the routine of discussing goals, strengths, and areas for development—instead have a dialogue about the best way to manage you and your team.

Open the conversation by asking, “What is your management style?” As your boss answers, listen for what works well for you, and what you might need to re-negotiate. For example, if he says, “I am very hands-off,” and you prefer frequent check-ins, ask if he would be willing to respond to a weekly status report. Or, if she likes daily meetings but you prefer to be left alone to meet a deadline, ask if you could move to twice weekly, once it’s established that you’re meeting expectations. Empower your manager to empower you by negotiating what you need to perform successfully.

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you just can’t seem to get your boss’ attention, ask yourself: Have you been paying attention to your manager and his or her goals, decision-making style, and preferred method of supporting you? If not, there’s definitely room for improvement in how you work together.

Proctor provides a final word of encouragement: Above all, "Don’t forget that your leaders want you to succeed.” With this in mind, remember that by influencing upward and learning how best to communicate with your boss, you’ll definitely be set up for success.

Photo of ladder courtesy of Shutterstock.