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Episode 15: Managing Up

August 12, 2019
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Angie Chang: Welcome to Girl Geek X Podcast, connecting you with insights from women in tech. This is Angie, founder of Girl Geek X and Women 2.0.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: This is Sukrutha. By day I’m an engineering manager.

Gretchen DeKnikker: This is Gretchen. I’ve been working in tech for over 20 years.

Rachel Jones: This Rachel, the producer of this podcast and we are the team behind Girl Geek X. This podcast brings you the best of Girl Geek X events, dinners, and conferences, where we’ve been elevating women in tech for over 10 years.

Angie Chang: And today we’ll be discussing working with your manager.

Rachel Jones: So I think this topic of working with managers comes up a lot regardless of the topic that we’re thinking about. Just ways to work with your manager kind of weave into the conversation. So, what do you think it is about this relationship that can be so hard to navigate at times?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think managing up is so hard that no one really taught me or it didn’t even come to my attention that I needed to focus on it until, I don’t know, maybe at least five or six years into my career. It’s really hard to know what’s expected of you, how you’re being evaluated if you just don’t know how to manage up. And the best way, I think, is to get on the same page and understand a bit more about what your manager… Or how your manager thinks, what your manager wants to see, what their goals are and how you can help them reach their goals. But it’s not the easiest process to get onto the same page as your manager, for sure. What do you think, Gretchen?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think what may make it hard is that if you’re very early in your career and you’re figuring out your way in the world and how you work and how you work with other people and how you work with a manager and then your manager might be only a year or two into managing. And so they haven’t really figured out how to be a manager rather than an individual contributor to help you learn how to manage up, right? So there’s this sort of… Everyone’s sort of figuring it out as they go along and I think that might create a lot of frustration and confusion.

Angie Chang: Just generally speaking, it’s one of the very popular topics of conversation from a career advancement perspective. But when you’re in the trenches, it feels very differently, right? You’re like, as Gretchen said, you’re doing the things and your manager’s probably also building the plan on the way down. There is oftentimes just too many things going on to really consider the management side.

Angie Chang: But that’s because we come from startups where people are often just kind of learning about the rules as they’re in it. I think definitely having a lot of conversations around what the expectations are and making sure that you have regular meetings that more people will show up to, to discuss how your goals are going to align.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think it’s super important, like Angie said, but to be really direct with this stuff, there’s sort of two ways to think about it, right? Like if you want to just kind of be a better employee thinking about what is my manager measured on, what would make them look good to their boss? What are the metrics, what are the things that they really care about? And when you’re sort of prioritizing your time, definitely prioritize and think about your decisions in the context of like, “How can I get my manager promoted?”

Gretchen DeKnikker: Because you can get your manager promoted, you can make everybody look good, right? Not that you have the ability to do that directly, but just sort of as a way of looking at it. But the other thing is, have direct conversations. Do not guess. Do not try to guess. My example is, I was hired for a job and two weeks in, my boss was fired. My brand new boss was fired and he’s really, him and a few other people who were brand new to the company and brand new to the team – we were opening a San Francisco office – they were all I had to turn to.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And so we had a trip planned to go to New York and my colleague who’d only been there a few months longer, he’s like, “Well, I don’t know if we should go.” And I was like, “I’m going, and I’m going to sit down with the CEO while I’m in New York and I’m going to ask him, ‘what were your expectations for my role? What were the goals? What are the things I could do in the first 90 days?’ Because I don’t have a manager anymore and I need to know.” It was a brand new role. And if I hadn’t asked those questions, I would have worked on the wrong things. I wouldn’t have prioritized my time in a way that my substitute manager for the time being, what his expectations were going to be.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And my colleague’s first response was this idea that you shouldn’t go meet and you shouldn’t go ask and that you should just sort of like sit back and wait to see what happens. And I’m so glad that that wasn’t my first instinct and that I went in and I had the conversation.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, that’s a good example. I think for me, I have asked questions like, “What is–” to my manager, I’ve asked questions like, “What is the thing that’s worrying you the most, work-wise? Or what is your biggest goal? What do you want your org to be known for?” And through that I get a sense of where I can insert myself and make my manager successful because that is the main thing. When you’re managing up, you want to make your manager a success in their job by basically managing them. And if I take myself and how I’m doing out of the conversation to start with and focus on what their needs are, then I put myself in that and say, “Okay, which of these align with what my goals are and how can I step in and take ownership of this particular area that’s going to make my manager successful as well as me successful and excited?” Then I’m starting to align our goals together.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Our first quote is from Sandhya Hegde who is the VP of Marketing at Amplitude and she shares her own advice on building relationships with your manager.

Sandhya Hegde: One of the challenges that I had to figure out was this idea of what builds a relationship with your manager and depending on your manager, it can be very different. So like over-simplifying, I would say there are two types. People who find it really easy to build relationships so that you don’t have to do the work. And then there are people who are just like less open, more private people that you can’t tell, “What’s this person thinking? Does she like me? Does she like the work I’m doing? She’s not, I can’t really tell what’s going on.” And so I’ve been in that situation often where I am the over-sharer – I can talk about my feelings for like three days – but I’m working for someone who does considers like, “hi” a conversation. So now, I’m like, “I don’t really know what’s happening here.”

Sandhya Hegde: And that was kind… I think the first time I had a job with a manager, it was like that. Like I really couldn’t tell what was going on. And at first I was just frustrated for a while and then actually just started talking about feeling confused. So I said, “Hey, you’re kind of hard to read and you don’t really talk about like what’s going on in your head, how you’re thinking. And I’m not really looking for like affirmation for like, ‘oh good job, Sandhya.’ Like that’s not the point. It’s not about the work. I can tell when my work is good or bad, like that’s very obvious. But I want to know do you feel like I’m making the right kind of progress?”

Sandhya Hegde: These are the things I would like to know and it wasn’t easy to do this because you have to be vulnerable. You have to say stuff like, “Hey, I care about how you feel about me,” which is a vulnerable place to be. But when I worked up the courage to say it, it made a huge difference. Because you are vulnerable, the other person starts being more vulnerable. So yeah, if you feel like you’re with someone who’s not opening up, honestly the best thing to do is just be vulnerable with them and create that space for them to reciprocate.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I like how she is… when she gave an example of being pretty direct about trying to get on the same page as her manager. How you do that is really up to you and your personality and how you feel comfortable. But just, I think, the essence of it is trying to understand, what about your manager? Do they like going for walks in their one-on-ones or do they prefer it to be a coffee? Or do they prefer it to be in a conference room? Trying to understand more about what their working style is will help you get on the same page for sure. It will break the ice initially and then you can get to the real stuff. Like what is important to them.

Rachel Jones: I think that comes back to even episodes that we’ve had about personality and communication and just knowing how to relate to individuals specifically. Because if you’re writing your manager these emails that are like, “How’s your weekend?” And all this extra stuff and they are only really reading it for that one bit of information. Knowing that is important. So yeah, just how this person relates. How do they like to show up in the office and how can that kind of inform the way that I’m building a relationship with them and aligning with them on the goals that we’re working towards? I think, yeah, getting to know them and their personality as a manager is really important.

Angie Chang: We’re hearing about this, as Sukrutha said, the personalities definitely shine through and being someone who’s always told that it’s hard to read my expression. I was like, “Oh yes.” So like having a person who is able to tell you, “Hey, you’re a little hard to read. Can you give me a little more? Or like how are you feeling?” And someone who like works with it instead of just getting offended and not asking the hard questions.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I really love that she brings up the concept of vulnerability. That’s in any relationship, right? The willingness to be vulnerable generally is going to bring out a different side in the person that you’re willing to sort of show that softer side to.

Angie Chang: It’s also like the willingness to do a little bit of work and ask more questions instead of just being like, “Well, my manager is not giving me what I want and I’m just going to be resentful.” And just actually like asking more questions to figure out what’s the working relationship going to be with this type of person. I’m sure there’s like professional tests that will then name this personality and give you hints on how to best interact with this type of person that you can investigate.

Gretchen DeKnikker: It’s also making me think about there’s this piece of software if you’re using Gmail for work – I think it’s called Crystal Knows – but you can go in and it’ll tell you actually how to communicate with that person through email. Like if you read mine it would be like, “Use short concise sentences, make your point quickly, don’t use a bunch of flowery language.” That sort of thing. And I thought it was pretty accurate, but it’s super interesting, and I think you can get it like an initial thing for free and then you have to pay, but it’s pretty amazing. Even if you just run it on your own inbox to see, “Oh yeah, that is like how I like to get emails.”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, it looks really good. I just Googled it, and I think I’d use it. One more thing that I’ve done, actually, is when I’ve gotten a new manager or I’ve been assigned to someone new or moved to a new org, I talk to people who reported to them for a long time to get a sense of what it’s like to report to them, what their managing style is. Just so that I’m better prepared. And that’s helped me so much to know what kind of things do they focus on from someone else’s perspective instead of just relying on how they represent to me.

Rachel Jones: So it’s nice having ideas for ways that you can build a relationship with your manager, but what do you do if you’re having a little more trouble navigating that relationship? Like how do you tell your manager that you need more from them?

Angie Chang: That’s a hard one because sometimes you realize that your manager has technically done it before but is not necessarily a good manager. So I am actually really interested to hear what Gretchen and Sukrutha have to say about working with your manager.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I personally don’t think anyone is a perfect manager, so you know, how good that person is as a manager to you, I feel a lot of that is in your control. I also have had some good managers in the recent past, but I’ve also seen other people struggle to report to them. So just taking into my own hands and really, really focusing on the relationship and managing up. Like I said, doing my homework to get a sense of what it’s like from other people to report to them, what they like and what they don’t like. And whatever they don’t like, if that resonates with something I wouldn’t like, then I would figure out how I would work around it or improve that scenario. I haven’t had a situation in a really long time where things just aren’t working because I invest a lot very early on into the relationship. So, Gretchen, have you had a situation where despite investing energy and time into the relationship, it’s still wasn’t working?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, I think, I mean, my advice on that is don’t try to read somebody’s mind, but also when you’re trying to have this conversation of going in and if they’re like, “Yeah, that’s fine,” or whatever, and it feels like there’s something else going on, saying like, “I feel like this isn’t quite what you were looking for.” Or saying, okay–Or they’re like, “Yeah, that’s good.” But you don’t feel like they mean it. You know? It’s like, “Oh well, for next time, how could this be better?”

Gretchen DeKnikker: And really opening those things because sometimes your manager isn’t going to take the time, but you can obviously tell that they’re not happy with what you’re doing. I definitely had managers where I can just tell it’s time to over-communicate and to keep them updated on every step of the way that there’s something going on that maybe they don’t even know how to articulate themselves.

Gretchen DeKnikker: But then there are people that are just not people that you enjoy working with and that’s managers or colleagues or subordinates and at some point, there’s only so much you can do to kind of try to smooth that over and then you just either take that person at face value and accept that there are just times where things aren’t gonna work, or you, particularly if it’s a manager, going somewhere else where you just feel like… If you have a manager and you know that they are never going to lift you up. They are never going to put you center stage. They are always going to keep you in their shadow, and I’ve had those, and you have to move on. You absolutely have to move on. You cannot let someone steal your spotlight. Not on your career path.

Angie Chang: I think there’s things people could do if they’re in a bigger company to find a new manager or team or project to work on, hopefully. Being on a smaller startup, it’s nice to imagine, like what Sukrutha mentioned, finding other people that this person has like managed before. I was like thinking back on my tiny startups and like there was nobody that I can ask those questions to, so…

Gretchen DeKnikker: Well maybe not in that company, but definitely people… It’s not like they’ve never worked with anyone before. Right? So you definitely can go back. I’ve done that with a new person at a small company, and seeing if there was someone I could reach out to that they’d worked with before that could give me advice. You just have to approach it from a really positive angle of like, “Hey, I’m just trying to do really great. Like if you could give me three pieces of advice on how to be successful, what would you say?”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s an interesting way of asking for constructive feedback about the person.

Angie Chang: So Sandy Lao, Head of Talent, Culture, and People Operations gave some tips on working with your manager during our dinner with HomeLight.

Sandy Liao: For us as a company, we started doing performance review on an annual basis and then we also do a year-end check-in. We want to understand, hey, even if it’s not a measurable bullet point percentage that we’re looking at, at least on a regular quarterly basis that you are speaking with your manager to talk about like, “Hey, I want to be able to achieve these five goals for the for the quarter. And are you able to do that?” At the end of the quarter, you guys should be sitting down, looking back at all the goals that you have set in this initially. And if you find out that hey, I’ve been able to achieve three out of those five goals, what can the company provide you? With what type of training or what are some of the resources for you to be able to hit the two bullet points in order for you to fulfill all of the achievement and goals that you had set initially.

Sandy Liao: So incorporating performance data is just crucial to the business, as well as yourself. So for any of you guys sitting here, if your manager has not spoken with you for the past quarter or past six months about how you’re doing from a performance standpoint, it’s just super, super important to like hold that in your hands and make that calendar invite and make them have that conversation. Right? Because especially working in a startup, these things kind of get out of hand when we’re trying to do like 100 things at once. But before any of us sitting here analyzing whether or not we’re excited to look for new opportunity or whatnot, it is just necessary to take that step to have that conversation with people that is mentoring you and that are working with you directly.

Angie Chang: I think she [inaudible 00:20:11] put that onus on people to come and tell their company what they need to succeed on the things they could improve on.

Rachel Jones: And using the data as the way to ask for it. Yeah. It’s like, “Okay, we set these goals and I didn’t meet two of them, so like, here’s what I need to meet the rest.” It’s an easier… If you’re able to kind of frame these conversations with your manager objectively, then that’s the way to navigate… If you just have a manager who has a troubling personality or communication style or other people have had difficulty working with them, really taking it back to this objective place of like, “We’re here to do this job. These are the goals along those lines and can you just tell me the extent to whether or not I’m fulfilling that”? I think being able to bring the conversation back to that is a way to navigate a more challenging relationship.

Angie Chang: It’s a good point. So, yeah, finding those, in this case she named five points every quarter, but whatever the companies set up is for those metrics that they’re trying to ask people to indicate in their performance reviews, of the self-performance reviews and using that as a way to advocate for things that you can get from your employer. Like more education, a conference ticket to go learn this thing or maybe you want to go to some kind of training group. There was some excellent t-groups for startups that I went to. Session where you can be with other startup leaders and talking through some of your management or other professional difficulties in a safer setting than your tiny startup.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think that probably the hardest part of this bit of advice if you’re earlier in your career is you just may not know exactly what you need to hit those. And being able to articulate to your manager, this is exactly why. “If I had XYZ, then I feel like ABC would…” Right? Because I think the danger is you’re like, “Oh well if I had this one piece of software, right, that I could do this better. Or if I had an extra person I could do this better.” And those are hard cases to make to your manager, particularly if there’s an impression that you’re not hitting your goals already. And so you do want to be very specific on what it is that you’re asking for and what you think the ROI will be. Because a fuzzy ROI is a hard argument to make to a manager to get additional resources. Sukrutha, does this come up in a larger company context?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Out of what Sandy said, I think the aspect about making sure that if your boss doesn’t bring up how you’re doing, it’s just as important… It’s equally your job to bring up how you’re doing. And Gretchen, like you said, all in your career, maybe you just don’t know how to identify what these goals are and where your goals can align with the larger organization goals. But I think that’s when you need to seek out people who are a year or two ahead of you in their career and talk to them. Try to build your resource group that way.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: And definitely I don’t think that your career growth is just fully your manager’s responsibility. It is just as much yours. And so if you don’t see those conversations coming up, you need to be bringing it up because I’m… As a manager, I can say I’m super excited and motivated to help people who seem like they want to be helped and who are motivated as well. It’s really difficult to grow someone’s career when they’re just not as motivated to do it. And that’s fine too. Sometimes people want to just stay at their level. That’s totally cool. But if you really want to grow, you want to be bringing it up a lot with your manager.

Gretchen DeKnikker: You know, I think what struck me in her comment was also if you haven’t talked to your manager in X number of months and you definitely want to be having more time with someone and making sure that you have those meetings. And like for me, advice I give to managers is that those one-on-ones are sacred and don’t move them and let the other person set the agenda. And not every manager shares that same philosophy. And you may have a manager that doesn’t look at it that way. But I always felt like I had a lot less fires and a lot less just random unexpected things happen if I kept my one-on-ones. And that also whoever knew that they had this time, my undivided attention, no one was allowed to interrupt and that I wasn’t going to move that meeting unless there was literally no other option.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And that they always had that time with me. And a lot of managers don’t do it that way. And if you have a manager like that, but if you can never get their time… This person has control of your career. And on some level, right? At least your advancement and of your visibility within the company. And if this person, if it seems like they’re investing in other people and not investing in you, rather than just being a manager who doesn’t really invest in anyone in their team, definitely think about, “Is this the right place for me? Is this the right path for me?” Because a manager can have a huge impact on your career and you don’t want to be begging for attention from someone who’s just really never going to give it to you.

Rachel Jones: Yeah. So Gretchen, you mentioned just how important that manager relationship can be for your career. How does that change as you progress in your career?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think it changes because you start, you know, managing up and managing down as you progress in your career and you have to… I think you become a much better employee. I think someone said this on one of the dinners, you just become a much better employee once you become a manager because you realize like, “Oh, this is what a manager actually needs from me. And you become your manager’s best employee after you kind of figure that part out.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Vidya Setlur is a staff research scientist at Tableau Software. She spoke about this during an elevate conference last year.

Vidya Setlur: I have found personally that some of the best mentors that I’ve come across have been people who were my managers in the past, maybe at a different company or in a different line whom I have respected and trusted, but because they are not my manager anymore there is a different type of relationship where it can be more mentoring as opposed to managing. There’s a lovely inflection there that happens. So kind of seeking out into your network and finding those canonical examples of people that you’ve worked closely with or that managed you maybe directly or indirectly. And seeing if they can help mentor you in your next path or next effort.

Rachel Jones: Have any of you seen this happen during your career? Managers becoming mentors?

Angie Chang: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve definitely seen former, previous managers serving in mentorship capabilities. Our favorite, I feel like in Girl Geek’s dinners we hear about micro-mentorship quite often and getting really great pieces of actionable feedback or suggestions for future projects or career paths and potential career paths from former managers.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, most of my former managers have turned into mentors. I reach out to them for various… With various questions about my career or just like… I’m sure, Gretchen, you have as well.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I keep really strong relationships with managers and they kind of do go on to be my mentor, as in they’re people that I go back to when I’m looking for a new job because… Not necessarily for them to hire me, but they know me so well and when I’m kind of trying to figure out what am I good at and what do I like doing and what direction might I go in. It’s someone who knows you really well to be able to kind of give their two cents, even if they haven’t been working with you recently. I mean, not all of your managers are like people that you want to necessarily keep taking advice from, but I think I’ve been really fortunate that most of my previous managers are people that I would want to, that I still do go back and be like, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, help me.” And they do.

Angie Chang: That’s great.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s really awesome.

Angie Chang: This is a great reminder of the importance of continuing to always try to find ways to do more. Like the woman from Amplitude said in figuring out the way to work with your manager, regardless of whether your personality is completely different, which is often the case in the world. Finding ways to ask more questions and figure out how to make your relationship work and benefit your career in the long run because it is your career that you need to own.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And I think it’s like any other relationship where you need to invest. You need to have candid conversations and to not think that somehow this relationship, because of the dynamic, isn’t something that should be managed like your others. With communication and understanding and clarifying questions. And that it’s not, like Sukrutha said, the manager’s responsibility solely. And that you definitely are half of the equation of the relationship.

Rachel Jones: Just knowing how awkward that transition into management can be for people. That’s definitely something to keep in mind when you’re working with your manager. Like a lot of people are put into this role without getting any kind of specific training or support on what it means to be a manager. And so keeping that in mind when you’re interacting with your managers or setting expectations for what that relationship should look like. I think, yeah. Definitely just focusing on the work that you have to do to maintain that relationship and drive your career forward and involve your manager in that.

Angie Chang: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Girl Geek X podcast. We’ll be back soon with more advice from women in tech. Be sure to like and review us on your podcasting service of choice, whether it’s iTunes or Google Play, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Rachel Jones: This podcast is produced by me, Rachel Jones with event recording by Eric Brown, and music by Diana Chow. To learn more about Girl Geek X or buy tickets to one of our dinners, visit girlgeek.io where you can also find full transcripts and videos from all our events.

Gretchen DeKnikker: This podcast was sponsored by Amplitude, a leader in product analytics, Amplitude provides digital product intelligence that helps companies ship great customer experiences for business growth.

Angie Chang: This podcast was sponsored by HomeLight, a Google-backed startup with a line of data-driven real estate products that empower people to make smarter decisions during one of life’s most important moments, buying or selling their home.