Managing Upwards: A Survivor's Guide

Join me on this exploration of how I manage upwards and how you might too! Read about the framework which I apply, the guiding questions I ask myself and concrete tips that you can take away and try.

photo of Louie Clifford
Louie Clifford

Principal Portfolio Manager


Manage -

  1. to handle or direct with a degree of skill

  2. to direct the professional career of

  3. to succeed in accomplishing

  4. to work upon or try to alter for a purpose

Upward -

  1. in a direction from lower to higher

  2. toward a higher or better condition or level

  3. to an indefinitely greater amount, figure, or rank

Hi, I'm Louie and thanks for taking a moment to read my blog post about Managing Upwards. Directly above I have put the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of what the words "Manage" and "Upwards" mean. For the purpose of this blog post I will set a baseline of what managing upwards means to me:

Managing Upwards - The mentality, approach and action(s) associated with interacting with others in Zalando who have a hierarchical or functional set of responsibilities commonly recognised as higher or more expert than your own.

So now we have the same understanding of what I mean by Managing Upwards, it is time to set some expectations. I am writing this purely from my own personal experience, so take this as just one of many of your own inputs. I am currently a Portfolio Manager for the Global PMO who is embedded in the Product and Category Experience organisation. Managing upwards is something that I have to do as part of my daily work. This made it a prime candidate for me to properly reflect upon how I do it and what findings are shareable. I hope this blog provides some food for thought and helps spark a conversation about how we can all get better together with managing upwards. Lastly, I want to add that after writing this blog I recognised there are very few differences between managing stakeholders and managing upwards - I just wanted to take this moment to say these tips are exclusive to managing upwards but can also be used more broadly.

Managing upwards is a skill that you can actively identify and thus develop as an employee. A quick google search of 'managing upwards' will hit you with 20.400.000 results with many of the first results trying to direct you to buy various books or read various articles aimed at business professionals. Managing upwards in itself will be a skill, if developed, that can help you navigate any kind of interaction (interaction to be defined within this post as any kind of communication or interactive experience) with a person whom you deem as more senior or having more expertise than yourself. This can be your direct lead, a topic expert or a person with authority within a project like a sponsor. The few steps that I follow, which will be detailed below can be applied to any situation, with anyone who you deem to be 'higher-up'. The outcome for you, if you choose to actively get better at managing upwards, is that your relationships with these identified individuals will improve. This in turn will improve your impact, thus improving your performance and hopefully allows you to move forward in your career at the pace which you desire.

The steps that I follow are quite simple in their concept but can be difficult to execute they are as follows:

  1. Preparation

  2. Purpose

  3. Context

  4. Approach

In the remainder of this post I will detail out what these four steps mean, anecdotes to help ground them in reality and tips for you to start implementing them yourself.


Seems obvious right? The better you prepare for any given situation the better chance you give yourself to perform well. The reason I have chosen Preparation as the first step of this framework is because I see the remaining steps all being under the umbrella of preparation. Luckily for us, and even more so working remotely, we shouldn't be caught by surprise too often by these interactions. Preparation is firmly within your control. Variables such as time and access to information may be a little more out of your control, so take a deep breath and focus on only those aspects with which you can affect change upon. Why so much emphasis on preparation though? Well, not only does it help you perform better it shows you have respect for the other person's time. Often senior management are time-poor. This means we have to extract as much value as possible from our interactions with them in a short space of time. These interactions can be in the form of a message on chat, email or a meeting. At Zalando a specific example of how we prepare for meetings where senior management are time-poor is the use of narratives, documents which convey a large amount of information in a short time. During my time at Zalando I have directly written, edited and reviewed numerous narrative documents. These can include decision papers, Critical Project Review pre-reads, concept papers, Press Release /FAQs and Solution Design documents. The concept of a pre-read narrative is simply to focus the preparation and pre-thought in order gain as much value as possible from the said meet. It is not easy, nor is it meant to be.


  • Pre-reads are often a great way to show you have prepared - it is worth practicing writing, reviewing and editing narratives.

  • Be thorough with your preparation but be mindful your time is valuable as well. Your experience and the experience of those around you can help guide you to make a decision about how much time to invest into the preparation phase vs other topics you are responsible for.

  • Unless you have a hard deadline to meet, I would advise that it is generally better to postpone an interaction if you feel you could be better prepared at a point in the near future. People can never get the time back they spend in that interaction period with you, so get as much value as you can!

Guiding questions I ask myself whilst in the preparation phase:

  • What is the purpose of the interaction I am going to have?

  • What context do I have?

  • What approach should I take?

  • How much time do I have to prepare?

  • What is the appropriate amount of time to invest into preparing for this interaction vs other tasks I have to do?

  • What can I leverage to make myself more effective in this scenario?


What outcomes do we want out of this interaction? Having a clear purpose is vital to the success of any interaction with colleagues. Either you have initiated the interaction and can clearly define and articulate this purpose or you have not and can clarify the purpose with the person or group who has initiated the interaction. It is vital that you understand why you are interacting and what the intended outcomes are. In the long run, declining interactions or choosing to fire an email off instead of having a meeting because you have critically thought about what you want to achieve will allow you to allot your and others time in a more impactful way. This will be noticed. In clarifying the purpose of an interaction you may run into scenarios whereby you directly question someone who is in a position of authority. From my experience, these interactions are a necessary part of growing and shouldn't be feared. Repercussions are unlikely if you challenge the purpose in a respectful manner, speaking or commenting clearly. In my experience at Zalando, most people are grateful that you are saving them time and they go back to clarify what they actually want. Lastly, when thinking about purpose, think about the end Zalando customer. Is the purpose of this interaction going to ultimately benefit the Zalando end customer? Having this quality of abstract thought can be a really useful guiding post in ambiguous situations.


  • Think critically about the purpose of your interactions. At Zalando we use the 'Our Founding Mindset' principles of Put purpose first, ego second, Solve something that matters, Always put yourself in our customer's shoes, Don't meet because it's "Thursday" and Live high challenge and high support. All of these principles are particularly effective as guides.

  • Don't be afraid to challenge the purpose of an interaction. It should be the first thing for you to think about if you are preparing and the first thing to check if you are the recipient.

Guiding questions:

  • Can I explain simply to another what I want to get out of the interaction with them and why?

  • Can I interpret the purpose of the interaction that was initiated by someone else higher up or do I need to ask for clarification?

  • Do I agree with the purpose or does it need to be re-thought?

  • How do I best approach challenging this person on the purpose?

  • What does success look like to me?


So here is where your homework comes in. Having context means you have the information available to you in order to achieve the purpose of the interaction given the circumstances which surround the interaction. There are many circumstances that surround an interaction that puts it into perspective such as the person's background, mental state, expertise, sense of urgency, purpose or desires just to name a few. As you can imagine, trying to piece together all these threads of context together to come to an accurate understanding can be hard. This is especially true when you may only have extremely limited first hand experience with that person. However, you should not be disheartened by this. If the scenario permits, do research before the interaction. This can be speaking to colleagues who have interacted with the person, finding out what worked and didn't and why. Additionally, understanding the purpose of specific roles and understanding what their purpose is within our organisation can be of use. For example, a software engineer and campaign manager may generally approach situations differently depending on what tasks and capabilities delivering their own work entails. Gathering context before engaging with an individual can make a huge difference to the outcome, so it is important to try and understand as much as you can.


  • Each interaction is a learning opportunity. We are all able to take what worked in one interaction and apply it to another unrelated circumstance.

  • Counter to the above point, people are individuals, just because one set of circumstances lead to a certain context with one person does not mean it would be applicable to another. Always check your assumptions and ensure you don't fall into the trap of generalising people.

  • If your context was incomplete and led you to the wrong conclusion about a person and your interaction with them, don't fret. Question yourself after the interaction to understand what you could have done differently and apply it next time. This is especially relevant for managing upwards the people who we interact with often, such as our leads.

  • Ask clarification questions to people. Smart, pointed questions can give you lots of context in a short time which can let you pivot your strategy in the moment.

  • Context is a two way street. If you feel that providing context to others will aid in the outcome of your interaction. Do so. It is just about how you approach it.

Guiding questions:

  • What do I know about this person and interaction purpose?

  • What would help me prepare that I don't currently know and how do I get the information?

  • Can I leverage information sources to gain more context, such as pre-reads from similar interactions, colleagues who have dealt with this person before, zLife profiles or even LinkedIn profiles?

  • Have I checked my assumptions and biases to help discard information that might not be incorrect?

  • Do I understand my own context and can I communicate that in an appropriate way if relevant to the outcome of the interaction?


Lastly, I want to tackle how you approach the situation. If purpose is the why and context is the what then approach is definitely the how of managing upwards. It can make or break any interaction. You can be very well prepared, have all the context in the world and understand what you want to get out of the interaction and still have a suboptimal outcome if your approach is misjudged. The reason I put the approach last is because, if you do your job correctly, as best as you can, with the prior steps, then most of the work has already been done to inform you how best to approach a situation. Approach for me constitutes the following:

  • When you approach the interaction

  • What format you use to approach the interaction

  • Your tone when you interact

  • The clarity of your delivery

  • The honesty of your content

Understanding these five points is key to ensuring you choose a good approach after putting all the hard work into the previous steps. I will quickly explain why these five points are important before describing guiding questions you can ask yourself to see if you're on the right track. All of these points apply both ways. If you are not satisfied with the approach from a higher up and you are sure this will lead to suboptimal results. Communicate this. It is a sign of maturity to communicate it with reasons why. It may not always work because of our pesky friend context, but you will have provided context just by trying to push back.

When to approach someone is important because catching someone at an inopportune time can kill the interaction before it has already begun. Ask yourself, when would be the best time to approach this person for this topic and why? For example there is a non urgent work topic but you put a meeting in for 5pm on a Friday evening, consider if this time would be most suitable for getting your audience on-side.

The format in which you interact with someone is vital. An analogy that you may have heard before is about 'picking the battlefield'. This means the place and situation by which you choose to engage. For example, is a private one on one conversation without an agenda best or is a group meeting with a well thought out written narrative the best. This is highly related to the purpose and outcome you desire. Complex, high-impact problems for example are better solved in groups with well thought out narratives whilst feedback about behaviour in a meeting would probably be best served verbally in a private conversation with an optional written document.

Your tone is secret soft-skill rocket fuel. It is the specific qualities you choose to put into your verbal or written communication. The style with which you communicate to the outside world be it choice of words, pitch and loudness all contribute to how your message is received. Think about the following two sentences and how the exact same words mean different things when using a different tone of communication:

  1. A woman, without her man, is nothing.

  2. A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Luckily, when using the written word, we have clever grammar tricks like punctuation to influence the exact meaning of what we are trying to say. However when we are speaking, it gets a little more complicated. We can easily be misinterpreted. I haven't found a one size fits all solution. However there are a few things that I do to ensure my tone is conveying the message I want to get across: 1) get feedback from people who will give it to you honestly - ask questions such as did I come across too harsh? Did I sound engaged? 2) Take notes of other speakers who get their message across in a way you like and critically think about what it is they are doing which is getting results and 3) slow down. Take a breath before answering or speaking and it will calm your mind and delivery.

This last point brings us nicely into clarity. Being clear means simplifying your language, using an economical amount of words and slowing down if you are a fast speaker. You want your audience to understand what you are saying. This is especially important when managing upwards as the audience may get frustrated easily if the speaker is not clear. Being to the point is a skill that requires practice. It is commonplace at Zalando that specific words will be highlighted and questioned by senior management in pre-reads because it can be misinterpreted.

Honesty of your content is another tip which I have seen first hand as paramount to keep in mind. It is not meant here that you are intentionally lying when you are managing upwards, but rather we naturally want to please our senior colleagues. That often leads us into the situation where we reactively say something is under control or known when actually we simply do not have an answer yet. It is important to keep in mind that senior managers are not there to catch us out. They are there for a purpose. So it really is ok to admit in the moment when you do not have an answer to a direct question. Simply state that you do not know, that you will find out and return with an answer. Being conscious of this reflex to please will help senior management build trust in you during your interactions.

In conclusion, managing upwards is a skill that can be refined. We can all work on it to improve which helps our organisation function more smoothly. Each leader and topic expert you meet during your journey is an individual who has their own life, circumstances, insecurities and expertise. Remember this. Treating people with respect no matter who you interact with is a key part of implementing these tips. You may have your own examples of your personal Steve Jobs who according to the book Radical Candor "I didn't say Steve IS always right. I said he always GETS it right. Like anyone, he is wrong all the time, but he insists, and not gently either, that people tell him when he's wrong, so he always gets it right in the end" or your very own Jeff Bezos who according to the book Working Backwards used leadership principles, narratives and input metrics to shape how to work with him. These examples are well documented but you can create a mental library of your own with how to manage upwards yourself. So, feel free to use any of these tips, share ones you know with your network and have fun doing it!

Some sources that inspired this post:

Radical Candor by Kim Scott.

Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr.

Range by David Epstein.

Humankind by Rutger Bregman.

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