10 expert tips to help comms teams manage upwards

Would you like to have more influence over the senior leaders in your organisation?

Maybe you need them to have a better understanding of the value of media opportunities.

Perhaps you want them to be available for more media interviews.

You may need them to sign off press releases and statements more quickly and not make so many changes.

These are all issues and pressures media and comms teams tell us they regularly face.

Essential communication skills, such as managing the media, building relationships with journalists and excellent writing, are no longer enough.

Comms professionals increasingly need to be able to manage upwards.

This is a topic we recently explored in a live masterclass for members of The Media Team Academy.

Kirsty Waite, a leading business coach, guided our delegates through what managing upwards means, as well as the benefits and challenges posed by the approach.

And she also helped them consider how they could start to do it.

Self-awareness, initiative and time investment are the foundations.

“Managing upwards involves input from both people - you and the person you want to do something,” Kirsty said.

“It is about give and take.

“But you need to take the initiative. No one is going to ask you to do it. It is not going to be on your to-do list.

“And taking the initiative is about nurturing that relationship. It takes emotional intelligence and being able to read what is going on with them and the wider business, and how you can help.

“This may involve talking with them directly or with the wider team. If the person you are trying to manage upwards is in the middle of a crisis, it will not land well. You are trying to build trust through letting them know you understand what is happening with them.”

What about self-awareness?

Kirsty said: “You need to understand when it is appropriate to manage upwards and when it isn’t.

“If it is business-critical or highly-sensitive, for example, it may not be appropriate for you to get involved and try to manage up. You also want to ensure doing it does not cause conflict with your manager or undermine anyone.”

To explore this further, Kirsty offered 10 expert tips for managing upwards, which we thought we should share.


1 Connection

Build a relationship – it is fundamental to managing upwards. Trying to manage someone you have not spoken to before will be difficult.

Kirsty said: “Show them that you are here to help. Let them know you are here to make things easier for them.”

Think about the relationships you already have in the workplace. Who do you interact with on a daily, weekly and monthly basis? How effective are those relationships right now?  Are you building relationships with the right people? What are you doing to nurture those relationships?


There's just a few days left to join the next intake of The Media Team Academy

If you want to be part of the next cohort of The Media Team Academy, you need to let us know by 30 June. For just £595 (+vat), your media and comms team could benefit from live masterclasses like this one on managing up. And they will have access to our online courses and resource hub.

2 Put yourself in their shoes

Take time to understand what is happening with the person you are trying to manage. What can you do to make this an easier task or project? How can you give them what they need right now?

If you need some help with this, speak to the PAs. Kirsty said: “When you build connections with the senior team, get to know the PAs. They can tell you exactly what is going on with that person that week and the slots where they will have more time to help you.”


3 Be courageous

To manage upwards, you are going to need to take the lead. And that may feel scary.

But the benefits far outweigh the negatives.


4 Build trust

It is crucial. How do you do it? By doing what you say you are going to do.

“If you are showing up to help, make sure you are delivering on that,” Kirsty said. “If you start to offer things and then don’t follow through on that, the trust will be quickly broken.”


5 Managing expectations

You must be clear about what you expect from the person you are managing up and how you can help them.

“You need to be transparent,” Kirsty said. “If it will take some of their time, be clear with them about how long you think it will take.

“The last thing you want to do is go in with surprises. Don’t leave anything hidden because they won’t be happy when they find out. That’s when you will get people disengaging from the process.

“And the trust will be impacted next time you go back and ask them to do something.

“This is about long-term relationship building. If you do what you say you will do, and people realise they can trust you, they are more likely to invest time in you next time you need them.”


6 Communicate effectively

Be more deliberate with your communication and understand the other person’s preferred communication method.

Kirsty said: “Make sure you are communicating clearly and effectively in a way they react to better.

“They might prefer picking the phone up and having a conversation. Others may want an email they can read when they have a moment.

“It goes back to building the relationship, knowing how they perform better and what they like.”  


7 Respect their time

Senior leaders have lots on their plate. Time is precious. So, you must be concise.

Kirsty said: “People don’t have a lot of time, especially those in senior leadership positions. Even when you get time with them, their emails will probably be going off, and they have millions of things going through their head.

“For them to be present with you in that moment, you need to get to the point, be clear and concise. No fluff.”


8 Clear and confident

Make sure you know what you want the senior leader to do, and you sound confident.

Kirsty said: “If you ask them to do something and are unsure about it, and it feels vague, you will not get far, and you are wasting their time. And again, that damages trust.

“They may be more senior than you, but you are the comms expert. You must sound confident, ensuring they know you have this covered and that they can trust you.

“If you are not confident, you need to figure out what you need to feel that way.”


9 Coaching

Coaching is something we have covered in more depth in an earlier masterclass. And it plays a role here.

“Coaching is a conversation that moves someone from a current state to the desired one. It helps them move toward their goal.

“It is based on asking questions and getting people to think more about the situation they find themselves in.

“So, rather than telling the senior leader what to do – which can feel like you are challenging them – ask questions that get them to think things through.

“Taking a coaching approach rather than a telling one is an easier way to get people to move because you are empowering them. They go through the thought process themselves.”


10 Polite

Be polite and nice.

“This is a simple one but being nice and polite is crucial,” Kirsty said.

“Remember, the key is to make their role easier in this process. We can do this more easily by being nice, polite and helpful. And it helps to build and nurture that relationship.

“And if we do all these things correctly, they will be grateful because we are helping them. Who would not want that?”


Managing sideways

Of course, as well as managing upwards, comms professionals may need to manage sideways.

For example, a media spokesperson could be an expert in their field but may not have a more senior role.

Do the same principles apply?

“I think they do,” Kirsty said. “Think about what’s in it for them. You know what’s in it for you, but what’s in it for them.

“When you turn up at their desk, have an idea of what is going on with them.

If you say, “I know you are busy, but I’ve got this opportunity I think will benefit you, and this is how we will support you…”, that’s a lot better than turning up and saying, “I need you to do this.”

“It is all about building that connection and understanding again and putting yourself in their shoes.”


If you would like access to more masterclasses like this, tacking the communication and personal development topics that matter to you – sign up now and join the next cohort of The Media Team Academy.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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