The art of managing up

Learn strategies for working successfully with your superiors.

December 15, 2015

Thirty-year-old Nicole Doeschot, CPA, has moved up the ladder several times at Anders CPAs + Advisors, a public accounting firm in St. Louis. She joined the firm in 2008 as an intern and was later promoted to senior associate and then supervisor. This year, she became a manager in the firm’s Tax Services group.

“There are a couple different ways that I’ve succeeded in moving up,” Doeschot said. “One of them is just by hard work and determination. And the second is by managing people and managing expectations.” In other words, Doeschot knows how to manage up.

“Managing up” is not a new concept, but it is a skill that is often overlooked by young CPAs trying to move up the ranks. Though different people define the term “managing up” differently, in essence, “managing up” means managing your manager and working well with your bosses, not only to benefit yourself, but your supervisors and firm as well.

“Part of being a good supervisee is not just sitting there like a lump and just doing what you are told. It is stepping up and taking initiative,” said Tom Birch, staff accountant at Hansen Hunter & Co. PC in Beaverton, Ore., and a former management trainer. “That makes your manager’s job better.”

Young accountants also need to know how to “manage up” if they want to get promoted, said Rita Keller, a former AICPA committee chair and a speaker, author, and management consultant to CPA firms.

Young CPAs are also often required to interact with not only their most direct manager, but with several partners as well, all of whom have distinct personalities and preferences. And, as in any profession, these bosses can at times be demanding, stressed, impatient, critical, or busy.

So how do up-and-coming CPAs deal with all of these personalities without committing major career gaffes? Here are some strategies for managing up:

Be bold, noticeable, and proactive. If you have a great idea, or if you read about a new tax law that would interest your boss, bring it up. “Don’t hide, be visible, and go above and beyond to get to know your bosses,” Keller said.

Offer help where needed and give input. Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, a vice president of finance for 1st Financial Bank USA in North Sioux City, S.D., said she moved up the ranks at her previous firm largely by recognizing areas where managers needed her help. “Young CPAs assume that their supervisors don’t want to know what they think, and that’s not the case,” she said. “The reality is, they wouldn’t have hired you if you didn’t add value.”

Know how your bosses work. Some bosses like to micromanage. Others are out of the office frequently. Some prefer emails or phone calls to face-to-face meetings. Some don’t want to be bothered unless it’s urgent. Knowing how your bosses operate takes time, but it’s important to pay attention to their likes and dislikes. Ask a lot of questions until you figure out their personalities.

Maintain a positive and calm attitude. Partners and clients don’t want to see CPAs stressed, so it’s important to maintain a positive and calm demeanor as much as possible, Doeschot said. If you’re able to keep your cool, supervisors will increasingly have confidence and trust in you.

Do an honest self-evaluation. Recognize that you may mess up on occasion and that your supervisor is not always at fault. “In order to manage up, you have to be realistic about the perception that other people have of you,” Stevenson said.

Don’t become too chummy with supervisors. “It’s dangerous to become friends with your boss,” Keller said. “Don’t try to be anybody’s best buddy. Be a team player, but be guarded when it comes to making those work friendships.”

Focus on your current role, not your next one. Rather than becoming too focused on your next job, “focus on where you are now and become really good,” Keller said. “Then you’ll get that promotion.”

Finally, and most importantly, respect your bosses. Respect the supervisors’ time and determine when you really need their help and when you should handle something yourself. If you disagree with your boss, Doeschot said, “Make it clear that you respect their decision and understand where they are coming from because they’ve been in this business a lot longer than you have.”

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer.

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