Over the course of the past four years, I’ve had nine different managers. Nine. That’s an average of one manager every 5 months.
Having this many managers has taught me a few things – most importantly, that managers are just people. They all have different strengths… and challenges. Some managers are excellent coaches. Others are methodological wizards. Others are experts at navigating the organization. But they simply can’t be experts at everything. And they tend to have a lot on their plate. Most managers have to contend with a high degree of task switching, multiple competing priorities, and a good deal of logistical overhead. While they may care deeply about you and your career, they may not always have as much time as they’d like to invest in you and your personal goals.
That’s why managing up is such an important skill for tech workers. As an individual contributor, it’s up to you to ensure that you get the support you need to build a path to success. It’s your manager’s job to enable this (and a great manager will do this actively or even proactively). But only you can know for sure where you want to go and what support you need to get there.
As an individual contributor, it’s up to you to ensure that you get the support you need to build a path to success. It’s your manager’s job to enable this.
One challenge? Knowing what you want is not always that easy. When I was a manager, I often found this to be the most challenging part of the manager-report relationship. I wanted to help my reports reach their full potential – and I had some ideas for what that might look like. But my reports often didn’t know what they wanted – or at least they didn’t know how to express it. They wanted me to tell them where they should go with their careers and how to get there. But I couldn’t be sure that I knew what was best for them.
I struggled with this as an individual contributor as well. My managers would ask (often with exasperation), “What do you want, Genevieve?” But I simply didn’t know. I didn’t see any other researchers out there who did exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what all the options were. And I certainly didn’t know how to get to a destination I couldn’t define. But I still felt like my managers should somehow just know. (“I’m not a mind reader,” one of my managers sometimes liked to remind me).
The constant manager changes made things even more difficult. As much as I tried to invest in each of these manager relationships, it became increasingly difficult with each new manager to build the rapport and context I needed to get on the same page about my career. I found that each manager had their own perspective on where I was going as a researcher and what type of work I needed to do to advance down that track. The whiplash was not only frustrating and confusing, it also prevented me from investing in any one direction that could meaningfully move my career forward.
Around manager change #4, I started thinking that there must be a better solution – some way that I could quickly onboard my managers to me and my work. Some way to have more effective – and stable – conversations about my career. I thought back to my own time as a manager and my relationship with my reports. What did I wish I had known about them when I first started working with them? What kinds of questions had been effective to ask them, even if they didn’t know what they wanted?
First, I had to understand their foundation – what did they see as their strengths, relevant experiences, and core skills? From this, I could better understand what made them uniquely good at their job. Then, I needed to understand their current trajectory – how did they view their current work and what (if anything) did they want to change? Next, I needed to understand their aspirations – what were they working towards in the short and long term? Finally, I could help them identify any support they needed to adjust their current track or work towards their future goals.
Together, this helped me paint a picture of where they saw themselves heading – and what they needed to get there – even if they couldn’t describe the end point exactly. I wrote this all down on what I now called my Manager Cheat Sheet: a 1-2 page summary that I could share with every new manager going forward.
The Manager Cheat Sheet
- Foundation – What are my unique strengths and capabilities?
- Trajectory – How do I view my current role and performance?
- Aspirations – What am I working towards in the future?
- Support – What do I need to adjust or build on to get there?
You can find a template for the manager cheat sheet here.
The cheat sheet proved immediately useful. Manager #4 was taking over for another manager mid-cycle, meaning they were picking up an extra 3-5 reports on top of their already very large team. Having the cheat sheet allowed them to quickly and meaningfully engage in my work in a way that might otherwise have taken weeks or months. And, by the end of the cycle, we were fully aligned on my performance and career goals.
From a self-serving standpoint, the cheat sheet allowed me to take stronger ownership of my personal narrative – including my role, my strengths, and my growth areas. I didn’t have to rely on a game of rushed telephone from former-to-current manager to relay the cliff notes of my career. It forced my manager to take the time and space to actually talk about my career, a topic that could quickly get lost in the hubbub of a reorg or manager transfer.
It forced me to take the time to really think about what I wanted my manager to know. What assumptions might they have about me? What did I feel was really important about my role? What strengths were really important to me? What path was I currently on and did I want to keep heading that direction? Writing it all down helped me build a stronger understanding of how my work was laddering up to something larger.
But, perhaps most importantly, the cheat sheet helped establish that our relationship was a partnership. It set an expectation with my manager that they could count on me to have a direct – and critical! – view of my performance. By sharing it with my manager, it invited them into an active conversation about my role. Integrating the cheat sheet into our regular conversation also helped us stay aligned throughout a performance cycle – checking in on whether my trajectory was on course and how they could support to adjust if needed.
Ultimately, the cheat sheet was just the beginning of what became an ongoing process with my managers. While useful for establishing an initial relationship, its true value was to underscore the importance of direct and regular communication with my manager to share my point of view on my career and performance and solicit their feedback.
This is an approach that I’ve brought into the rest of my relationships with my managers. Whether proactively setting expectations at the beginning of a performance cycle, coming prepared to my 1:1’s with identified areas of support, or having a clear perspective on my performance at the end of a cycle – it’s all about keeping an open dialog with my manager about where I’m headed and what support I need to get there.
Genevieve Conley Gambill is a pathfinder and strategist with over ten years of experience advising top tech companies on preparing for the future. Her blog, tiny-data.tech, is aimed at helping researchers deepen their strategic impact and future thinking. You can find more from Genevieve on LinkedIn and Twitter.