Managing Up: Learning to Work Effectively With the C-Suite

April 27, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

There is an extraordinary filter or barrier between employees and the CEO and other key executives in the leadership team often called the C-Suite. Traditionally the C-Suite includes the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or President, Chief Operating Officer (COO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), legal counsel, head of sales, marketing, public relations, human resources along with some major department heads, and the respective administrative support. The C-Suite is separated in a secure suite usually at the executive headquarters. If you are a key manager or department head, it is critical for your career and job security to learn to “manage up.” There is much written about management, team building and how to become a better manager. Learning how to “manage up” is much more important to your success than managing your team.

The chain of command and the corporate hierarchy is a key cultural “rule” controlling executive access. The inability to talk and share information with executives is a challenge that some perceive as more than just a communication hurdle but as a restriction to innovation. For that reason many younger, hi-tech companies design their facilities to foster interaction between their executives and employees. That freedom of access is not as common in financial firms.

Many C-Suite executives in financial firms are sheltered on the penthouse floor. If you have a key to the C-Suite, it means you have access to the executives or at least their administrative assistants to some degree. Most staff people do not cross this strict boundary. The gatekeepers are not just the card keys and security doors but the admin staff.

The most important advice to a new manager learning to “manage up” is the importance of developing good relationships with the admin staff and especially the executive secretary to the CEO, CFO and COO. As a manager, the ability to conduct business effectively is proportional to access to the C-suite, so it is critical to get to know the administrative assistants who can help you gain access even when their executive’s schedule is full. The most important value of these C-Suite relationships is their support when you require a major decision to be supported or approved. It also is helpful to have a positive relationship when merit and bonuses are being distributed.

The isolation of the C-Suite is a perplexing issue for both sides, but it is the executive who sets the access boundaries. The art of managing by walking around and knowing your employees has become a rarity for many executives. In fact, the workload increases observed over the past decade indicate that many executives are often too busy themselves to realize the importance of managing their direct reports to success. There are the notable exceptions like GE and IBM’s admired culture that sees the training of future leaders as a key leadership responsibility.

Most executives become successful because of their personal ambition, drive and self interest. Many are not people oriented and generally are not going to see the return on the time investment to visit all facilities and meet their employees down the chain. Their staff meetings are their preferred method to see outside “mahogany row” and how they control practices and manage department production. Truly great leaders see that succession planning and a longer term strategy is critical to a company’s sustainability and they do spend time mentoring.

Managerial success and especially department head effectiveness is based on learning to manage up and learning how to obtain executive support. While much is written on the basics of management including the roles of staffing, directing, controlling and leading your teams, the most direct route to job stability and promotion is developing sound relationships with the executive team. The isolation of the CEO, COO and CFO makes it seem somewhat intimidating, but business issues generally will allow you some meeting interaction especially during leadership meetings, off-sites and social events. Eventually work will require some interaction with a key executive, and it makes good sense to demonstrate your knowledge and professionalism with a solid presentation. It also helps to ask a few questions so you better understand the executive’s personal objectives and concerns. In time a sense of humor and some shared stories can bridge the gap and help you develop a better relationship. But it would be unwise to push too hard and not demonstrate some patience.

As a corporate real estate manager my role required interaction with Human Resources and IT to manage staff moves and projects. Building strong supportive relationships with the CIO and the head of human resources was essential to managing space effectively. Evaluate your particular job role and determine where an executive would find your work of value to them. Do not wait for a call but anticipate the need and use your emerging relationship as a time to express your ideas to support their specific initiatives.

Decision-making is probably the most challenging aspect of managing up. All companies define approval limits that lead to the C-Suite, and it is important to know how to build consensus. Unfortunately there is no simple strategy for garnering support and demonstrating your value when decisions have to be made quickly or are complex. Difficult decisions cause stress and there is some natural conflict between the CFO who controls the budget and other executives who seek funds for a project. It is critical to stay out of the cross-fire when there are disagreements between the executive team and to seek rational solutions found in solid analysis that will restrain emotions. When companies are doing well the stress of the C-Suite is not as visible. Executives are more approachable and humor is a welcome relief to the daily grind. When a company is floundering, however, there is high stress, tension and insecurities that can be difficult to predict.

There is no question that the politics of the C-Suite are complex and unnerving. It is best not to pressure decisions during such stressful times as you will often be seen as the unfortunate messenger of bad news. Keeping key people informed is probably the best solution when the decision process becomes dysfunctional. Do not depend on reports and e-mails. Make it a point to have face-to-face discussions with key stakeholders or ask your direct report who may have a stronger relationship to share critical information with the appropriate executive. People hate surprises so make it a habit to provide regular updates on key issues to senior staff. Find allies within the C-Suite to help you present a difficult problem and always offer up several solutions with justifications. First and foremost, be prepared to provide an in-depth evaluation if you bring up a topic. If you need more time or analysis, it is better to ask to reconvene than be shown to be unsure or undecided about an issue.

Rehearse your executive presentations and be ready to answer the general questions that only you as a department head may know: The current operating budget, the scope, schedule and budget of a proposed budget, and always bring with you the key metrics of the department. Most importantly, let others set the agenda. Executive meetings are fraught with unknowns, and it is not wise to bring up a new topic or a controversial issue which might make a key executive feels he has not kept everyone informed. It is always best to be patient, listen and use your direct report as the intermediary especially when an issue is challenging.

Managing up helps your team focus on the daily tactical matters while you address the more urgent and strategic issues. In the best of times your efforts will be rewarded with an elevation of your team’s performance. Competency, however, is a poor shield when the C-Suite is under siege battling poor results and shareholder disappointment. Building strong relationships may shelter you from inevitable stresses and complaints when a company is in trouble. Everyone, however, should have a career continuity plan with a robust network of former colleagues if the company is planning a merger or before you find out you are on the reduction of force list.

In successful companies managing up is less threatening and it may provide a manager a mentor and even a friend. It is impossible to have good relationships with all the C-Suite occupants, but it is helpful to have a few people who will help you if needed. No matter your best intentions, there will be a time when there is disagreement or drama on the C-Suite floor. Remember your greatest ally is the administrative team who can warn you if you should delay a meeting or keep your sense of humor restrained. Learning to manage your executive relationships is an important skill that reaps many rewards and mitigates serious risks.

A great manager learns to manage up and gains respect for his competency and elevates his team. Managing up is a simple way to describe how to develop relationships with the executive team. Having a solid relationship with key executives is so important for a solid reputation and advancing a career.

Article Source:

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Prev Post:
Next Post: