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A Common Sense Approach to Managing Up and Sideways (and Heck, Down, Too)

This article was first published December 12, 2012. Dave Nuscher, 
Chief Communications Officer, American Academy of Arts, Cambridge, MA

In our day-to-day work, our most notable successes do not come from spending our energy finding more clever ways to solicit our alumni and parents. We are most successful when we are focused on sharing information that our constituents really care about.

The same is true in managing up and sideways: it's about focus, and my using the time that you have allotted to me in your schedule to spend in conversation with a colleague in a way that really matters to that person.

In order to do that, to know what matters to my colleague (whether someone above me in the org chart, or a peer, who in my case is usually one of our internal clients), I need to do what my most accomplished fundraising colleagues excel at: listen. I can't deliver for you and I don't know what you need and how you want to work together if I don't first stop talking and instead start listening. In all likelihood, in the time we have together, you're going to tell me nearly everything I need to know for us to have a successful working relationship.

What constitutes that success? Mutual trust and respect—it's the bedrock on which skyscrapers can be built in the workplace. It's certainly possible to have one or two relationships where you don't have trust and respect, in which you are required to actively manage all the issues concomitant with that. But it needs to be the basis of the majority of the working relationships you have, especially those above you in the organization chart. Otherwise, in my experience, the environment is likely too toxic for you to make work, no matter what management strategies you employ. Plan an escape route from the building.

After you have established that personal brand—as a person of integrity, vision, and commitment to your word—that's when you can start to use political capital in these relationships with managers and peers. You always continue to be the person who delivers as promised but people are more willing to listen to you about the limitations of your resources, the processes that need to be followed, the flexibility that your team might need in a given situation. Yes, we can absolutely help you on that case statement and if you make it a fall project instead of the summer one, I will have a fabulous writer freed up at that point to work on it.

First, go all out to earn the trust. You might spend the first six months in a FedEx uniform—that's how much you need to be delivering, responding, and then delivering some more every single day. It is not about what I say but rather what I deliver. As marketing guru Seth Godin says, "Don't strive to be heard when you're here. Work to be missed when you're not."

In my sector of our industry, by necessity, we're trying new things all the time to see what works. But also by necessity, some of the things that we try are going to fail. That's how we learn. But I'd much rather be engaged in that process with someone with whom I've spent a lot of time building trust, so that I know if what we tried failed, we trust each other enough to move forward together.

In many ways, management feels like the wrong word for all of this. It's a convenient term and we all know what it means. But the author Dan Pink has been quoted as saying that management is a brilliant technology for organizing people for productivity, circa 1850. It's designed to get compliance.

At this level, who among us is looking for compliance? Instead, I'm looking to engage with you in a professionally satisfying and mutually beneficial way, to explore new possibilities that neither of us could have necessarily come up with on our own. I don't want compliance because on the things that we're working on together, compliance would be a terribly limiting idea. I don't even know what it would look like.

Dan Pink also says that the biggest motivator for a professional is making progress on meaningful work. As someone who has experienced this, there is little that is more satisfying—more motivating—professionally than encountering someone with a reputation for being incredibly difficult to please and then figuring out how to turn that relationship into one with a valued strategic partner. The precise recipe will vary from relationship to relationship, but the ingredients are some combination of good communication, flexibility, compromise, and holding myself to the highest standards in terms of what he or she can expect from me.

We also owe it to our second-in-command folks—the trusted deputies, if we are lucky enough to have them—to model this for them and give them examples of the myriad engagement strategies that they will need to be successful at managing sideways.

We are called upon every day to do things differently, to reach higher, to produce something new that people want that they didn't even know that they needed. But who among us can do that alone? I need my colleagues to fully trust me and engage with me on whatever it is that we're working on, because we stand a much better chance of success if we're in this together. But I can't expect you to stand with me if I haven't made good on my commitment to you as a colleague.

Dan Pink also talks about the balancing act between being humane and being effective. Never underestimate the power of a kind word. If I'm engaged in a project with our medical school and someone on their team goes above and beyond in our work together, I will call her director and let her know.

It's like paying the toll for the stranger in the car behind you at the tollbooth. We're all moving at the speed of light these days, and everyone has the EZPass tags on their cars so they needn't even slow down. But if you take a breath and make that phone call, or even swing by the manager's office on your way home at night, you've just added another beam on the bridge that we are forever constructing with our colleagues. And you just did your part to help make your organization the kind of place where good work is recognized and appreciated.

We've grown out of the habit of the give-and-take of conversation. We would rather e-mail and, increasingly, text than talk. Sherry Turkel of MIT makes a powerful observation about this: she says texting is great for certain kinds of messages, like "I love you" and "The baggage is at Carousel B." None of these technologies is the medium for challenging conversation with a colleague about why you need more time on a deliverable or why the donor she has identified for a magazine story is problematic for some reason. Walk down the hall and find her. Pick up the phone.

And then whatever you do, in meetings with managers and colleagues, put the phone away. We live in a culture of tremendous distraction—we all know this—so communicate to those colleagues with whom you're building connection and trust that this topic is something that merits your undivided attention. You’re giving everything you’ve got.

I know you're all insanely busy and in-person/live conversation "takes too long" and undermines your control over what you're going to say. But consider what it gives you in the workplace: the space in which to negotiate, compromise, reflect on something complicated, and brainstorm. It gives you the opportunity to really understand the other person. It also allows you to have more sophisticated conversations—you can wrestle with harder issues and advance your institution further if you don't have to reduce your shared problem to something simple that can be answered by text. Our challenges aren't simple—anything but—so we shouldn’t expect we can have simple exchanges with managers and colleagues and expect to make significant progress.

The irony of our professional lives is that the ultimate goal of our fundraising colleagues is to get in the door and get an in-person meeting with the donor. And yet we often hide from each other in our day-to- day communications. Confrontation with a manager or a colleague is hard, delivering unwelcome news is hard, but in my experience, it's rarely as hard as you think it will be. And the feeling of relief you get— and pride from having tackled it head on—is a powerful feeling.

About Dave Nuscher

Dave Nuscher is the chief communications officer for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In that role, he has devised a robust and forward-thinking communications program to build and strengthen the community of Academy members, to increase the profile of the Academy’s work in the U.S. and internationally, and to engage the general public in the critical topics addressed by Academy projects and initiatives. He served previously as senior director of strategic marketing at Tufts University, director of advancement communications at Boston College, and deputy director of communications at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is chair of the CASE District I board, and past co-chair of the CASE District I annual conference. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard College, and his master’s in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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