Managing up: To Get Ahead, You’ve Got to Make Others Look Good

Managing up: To Get Ahead, You’ve Got to Make Others Look Good

To get ahead in your legal career, you must help your superiors and clients look good. The key is making their lives easier by, essentially, managing your relationship with them. Whether you are junior or senior—and whether your goal is to make partner, earn a promotion in your corporate legal department, or otherwise move up in your organization— “managing up” is crucial.  Here’s how:

Get the Big Picture

Understand the business of your law firm or corporation and both your and your superior’s role in the organization. Know what work must be completed, the desired outcomes, ultimate goal, and any deadlines. Also, be sure you understand your clients’ business, objectives, and desired outcomes. Then, act in alignment with them.

Anticipate Needs

Know how to read the moment and anticipate your superior’s and the client’s needs. Always offer your help during an “emergency,” but also make a habit of paying attention to the normal rhythms of your organization to determine how you can pitch in more regularly.

Maximize Your Talents

Communicate what you’re good at and how your strengths can be put to best use. Seek to reduce or manage some of your superior’s workload, in order to give him or her or more time. Position yourself as someone who can pick up the slack when needed. Say “yes” to as many requests as possible and volunteer to take on tasks and responsibilities as often as you reasonably can. Not only will this help your superior and benefit your client, it also will develop your skills. Ask for more responsibility. Seek out opportunities that allow you to flex your intellectual muscles and prove your worth. Each time you expand in a role, you add more value to yourself and to your organization and, ultimately, to the client.

Head Off Disaster

Never let a partner or client get blindsided. If you have information, don’t withhold it, especially if it’s bad news. There’s nothing worse for your partner or client than feeling that they’re out of the loop. Early warning of a possible issue or problem provides the opportunity to take steps to minimize or avoid negative consequences.

Don’t Waste Anyone’s Time

Keep your commitments and complete assignments on time, or ahead of time, if possible. Advise your supervising attorney or client about any delays or progress you’ve made before they ask. Remember, you’re not the only one on a tight schedule. If you need to speak with your partner or client, be realistic about the time they can give you, and keep it brief and to the point. Try to figure out things on your own or find a colleague who can help you get answers. Save one-on-one time with superiors and clients for those issues that really need their attention.

Be Proactive

When you encounter a problem, research possible solutions. On the other hand, don’t spend a lot of time going down the rabbit hole before seeking clarification; nor should you wait until it’s too late to properly handle an issue. When you approach the partner or client, let him or her know your ideas and the action you’ve already taken towards solving the problem.

Match Their Style

Each person has his or her preferred work and communication styles and you must accommodate them as much as possible. It’s effective to mirror or emulate their style to some extent, if you can. You need to understand what makes your superior or client tick (and what ticks them off) and what they value most—both personally and professionally—if you want to get buy-in for your ideas. Problems inevitably come up but knowing the best way to approach your superior or client can help you navigate sticky situations.

Communicate and Collaborate

There will, of course, be times you disagree with your partner or client or think you have a better solution or idea. You must communicate this in a respectful and productive manner. Listen to the request and indicate that you understand what is important to the other person. Think about whether and what you are willing to compromise. Show respect for the other point of view, and then clearly and unemotionally state your position and reasoning behind it. Disagreeing or saying “no” respectfully actually can become a competitive advantage, because it shows your social intelligence, intuition, and regard for others.

Don’t be Obsequious

No one wants to feel like they are being manipulated. All of the above must be done in a genuinely helpful manner. The best practitioners of the art of “managing up” are those who do so invisibly.

Valerie Fontaine

Valerie A. Fontaine earned her JD from UC Hastings College of Law and her BA, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, from UCLA. She was on the Editorial Board of COMM/ENT, a Journal of Communications and Entertainment Law. Valerie practiced law with a prominent Los Angeles law firm and entered the legal search profession in 1981. Valerie is a member the Board of Directors of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC) and serves on its Ethics Committee.
Valerie Fontaine

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