Managing Up w/ Mark Tanner

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Helpful insight for both team members and managers!

Mark Tanner, Co-founder/COO of Qwilr, shares his learnings around ‘managing up’ and how to build a ‘feedback muscle’. Qwilr, have 1000s customers, 50+ staff, and a Marketing org of six. Mark has worked at large organisations like Google and understands the pressures and challenges that teams can face with communication. 

Recommended reads shared by Mark:

Radical Candor by Kim Scott.
Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler. 

Thank you, Mark! 

AT: Andy here. Thanks for joining us for another Munch & Learn. 

AT: As you know, it’s all very fast paced and bite-sized, and today I’m joined by Mark Tanner, the COO of Qwilr for what is an exciting chat about managing up. Mark thanks for joining us. 

MT: Pleasure mate, very happy to be here. 

AT: Mark COO/Co-founder as I said, of Qwilr, which enables organisations to design perfect proposals, quotes, client updates, and more created in a flash. Great positioning, Mark. Qwilr have thousands of customers, over 50 plus staff and a marketing org of six. Mark has worked at large organisations like Google and understands the pressures and challenges that teams can face with communication. Hence, why I thought of you when it came to managing up, it’s not an easy topic to approach. So I appreciate you tackling this with us and sharing your insights. So if you’re ready, shall we roll? 

MT: Let’s do it. 

What is Managing Up? 

AT: Alright, cool so Mark, first off, what is managing up in your eyes?

MT: I think in my eyes, it’s as simple as that, a part of it and the more complicated nuanced part of it. And the simple part of it is like, how do you have like an engaged, worthwhile, meaningful relationship with your manager where you are not just sort of being like this sort of downtrodden I.C? Always doing what you’re told, but actually, being a member of the team that’s contributing and giving feedback and playing an active role in what goal setting is, what the achievements are, how we’re focused on different things and that’s just playing an active part in that side.

Then, I think the more nuanced and complex part is like what to do when you feel your Manager is like making a dire mistake and I think that’s the harder more complicated part of managing up is when you see that. Hopefully you’re in a positive culture and you can have whatever radical candor or the sort of, you know, things like that.

But like there can still be times where you think that a real mistake is about to be made and you’re trying to think about how to sort of best address that. 

AT: It’s interesting what you say that because it feels like what you’re getting at is that there’s obviously large levers at play here, that will ultimately dictate someone’s abilities to manage up. 

MT: I mean, truly, like you can imagine a perfect organisation where you don’t need to have this because you’ve got a very collaborative, open culture where there’s like two way feedback going on regularly and everyone is correctly consulted the correct amount of time for all decisions, et cetera. I mean, the reality of a busy org though is you do have these scenarios where decisions get made or being pushed to get made and I think often let’s assume with positive intent.

Like they’re trying to do it for the right reasons, but it’s still like, you still feel like there is a mistake that’s about to be made even if the reason I’m making this decision is like, we need to move quickly for various reasons. Like in a startup there are times where you’re like, Hey, we are running out of money. Like we have to make a decision here. We have to move, or we have to have this thing by this date or whatever. And you know, it can be a thing where, where there isn’t a chance for perfect deep thought on a topic and you kind of do need to move on it. But I can imagine, you can imagine when we’re like, you know, managing up sort of happens pretty rarely and you don’t need to worry about too much and I think for some people that can be a bit stressful, especially, you know if you have a big, bad boss.

But on the flip side, I do think that it’s really important in a healthy org to have that capacity and to have the ability to sort of be able to have productive conversations, even if they are difficult ones with your manager and even potentially people higher than that, about sort of important topics.

And I do think that it’s such a big skill. That if you can develop, you know, early in your career sort of how to have difficult conversations and how does sort of have them with people where there is a bit of a slight power imbalance. It’s like wildly, wildly, I think, useful and valuable for your career.

AT: The reason I wanted to open up this conversation with someone like yourself was I I’ve heard it a lot in the research for focus or the product that we’re building with marketing teams. Yeah, it’s a real challenge for a lot of people too, to have that environment or to know how to approach their manager, to be able to get that buy-in or maintain that buy-in.

So I think you’ve really clarified what is managing up. So hopefully everyone is falling along now. And you’ve started to sort of touch on this a little bit as well and how you should approach it. But what if you’re thinking about the building blocks and our checklist? What would you encourage someone to think about?

MT: So the first like matter point is like, you know, you ideally have an organization that is open, like, you know, values, collaboration, you know, open to feedback and where they’re sort of can be bi-directional feedback between managers and I.Cs. And, you know, you sort of have a space during a one-on-one where you can, you know, they can say, Hey, I’ve got some feedback for you about this thing. Hey, I’ve got some feedback for you about this. And that’s like, And honest, open, valuable exchange where, you know, both parties, respect each other, et cetera, et cetera. And I think if you have that, that space, you know, you think you can sort of, this should be better. 

And so I would say that like the first step of that is like, you know, I think it is to, you know, even if you don’t need to like manage up today, you should probably still be thinking about it, like building that muscle and building that trust and building that respect with your boss kind of like ASAP, if you don’t feel like you already have it whether you’re new on the site, know on the scene or just the thing you haven’t really done before. But I do think that like, even if you starts with something relatively small it is a really great sort of muscle to build that feedback muscle of saying, Hey, Andy, you know, I just, I noticed in this meeting the other day, you phrased this thing in a way that You know, kind of shut off debate from a few people and you know, it wasn’t, it wasn’t a big thing. I actually think we’ve kind of already gotten to that space, but I do think that a few people felt a bit weird about it or whatever. I’m giving a terrible off the cuff example, but like, you know, I think having a, not trying to have like a sort of huge, like crazy big bit of feedback, but having a small thing I think can be you know, sort of a good way of just, you know, like that sort of building a bit of trust, building a bit of familiarity.

Such that, you know, when you do have a bigger one to come in, it’s not like it’s the first time you’ve ever given them feedback. Do you know what I mean? There’s, if you, if you’re a first time you ever like having a serious conversation with someone where you’re sort of kind of criticising and challenging and pushing them on something that they have decided that you think is really, really important. If it’s the first time you’re doing this is on some huge topic, like you’re making it a bit harder for yourself. So I do sort of think like, this sounded great. If you can have like, Had some, a little bit of building a little bit of buy-in there and sort of had that cycle of some feedback. The other person has some time to digest.

Hopefully they’re like, Hey, thank you. That was good. That I’m really glad I know about that. And I’ll try to sort of up my game and in that way in future, and it might be a very specific, like, you know, targeted, like you know, tactical thing, or it might be a more of. general cultural thing, like whatever it is, but it’s not like it’s a smaller one, but I’d say like, that’s like my first bit of advice. It’s always nice to start from a base. 

I suppose the second one is when you give feedback or are managing up or structuring this stuff generally, and I said, this is true of a feedback, whether it’s audible down or sideways. So whichever way it is you know, you need to have done a fair bit of processing on your side first about like really understanding what it is. And so if something happens and you feel it’s it’s wrong and it’s bad, and sometimes you can feel these feelings pretty strongly and be like, ah, this is like wrong. This is terrible. And I think you kind of need to let yourself, it can be hard in a fast paced environment where if decisions are really are moving quickly.

But if possible, you kind of need to like, let yourself cool off out of the emotional state and then approach it in a way to do a bit of processing. I go for long walks, but yeah. Have bit of things. I calm down, sleep on it, go for a long walk. I think there would be like, what exactly am I trying to say here?

And so when you, when you go and have that thing, you know, you’re not using combative language, you’re not, you know, ideally you’re attempting not to trigger like fight or flight in them. Right? Like this sort of, which is a. You know, when faced with criticism or a challenge to, you know, the path that they had, you know, something that someone’s like made a decision in their mind, their mind wants to keep on down that path, because that is the easiest path to go down.

If you’re sort of really pushing on that, especially it’s a big decision that that can be harder person. I think you need to have empathy for that. And so you need to try to bring a relatively unemotional, relatively clear well processed bit of feedback to it, if that makes sense. And I think, you know, now you also want to do it relatively quickly.

So it’s this sort of balancing act like, you know, if we have a meeting and I give you feedback, two weeks later, that’s kind of a bit useless. On the flip side, I’d say giving feedback, like immediately after a meeting, when something goes wrong, is also maybe sometimes the wrong vibe. And so again, you know, you should be your own and judge, but I would say that that’s another thing to sort of be mindful of is how do you knowing that managing up and, and, and especially with complex tough conversations is going to be, you know, something of a hard thing for that person to hear.

How do you make it easier for them? You know, how do you do the work on your end, such that it’s very clear what’s coming through. It’s not emotive. It’s not sort of, you know, as much as possible. It’s not sort of seen as a threat or whatever else.

AT: That makes a lot of sense. My mind is swirling. There’s lots in that. So I love the muscle part, the feedback muscle. That’s really cool. 

Building the feedback muscle 

MT: You need to build it. This is why, like, you know, a lot of people have. Well, a lot of good managers have a thing of every single time you meet for a one-on-one, you have to bring feedback for each other. It’s not because every single time there’ll be like awesome feedback to give.

Cause sometimes it’s like, oh, Andy, I don’t really have much feedback for you, but it’s, it’s just, it’s a muscle that you build that you sort of. You sort of, it’s building this trust, it’s this idea of a trust battery and sort of understanding where, where, where you each sit in terms of trust, batteries, analysis of interesting concepts.

But like, you know, I think where you sit on that side and it is a little bit, it’s a hard habit to build. And I think that, you know, all those little tricks about making sure you do it every time just makes it a little bit easier. 

MT: You said I’m not an expert or a guru in this topic, but I, what I sent is that where everyone just needs to practice.

Right. And so, and be open about that. But is there anything else that you’ve learnt over the years you’ve observed or you see other people doing, which you like that’s really cool around managing album or managing yeah. Managing in general. I mean, I think the, I think the, the, the mastery PC, I mean, like the additional reading for this chapter is It was like radical candor is, is, is one of the classics by Kim Scott.

She wrote that book after her time at Google. She’s just, she’s done a second one recently that I’m can’t remember it is that it was, it looked interesting. I should remember that one, but anyway, Radical Candor is the classic just about, you know, how you, about how you have a feedback driven culture. You know, it’s not necessarily a perfect book, but I, but I do think that it has a lot of good insights in there about.

Why feedback matters, why honesty matters. You know, and, and, and Y you know, giving difficult feedback to someone is like, actually, like, without getting too woo, woo. Like a loving kind thing to do, because, you know, we’re all imperfect beings. Generally speaking, a striving to be better and would like to have you know, to sort of improve and get better.

And actually, you know, if you don’t understand errors that you’re making along the way, it’s impossible to improve. And so obviously you then need to work on the way of communicating that that book has a bunch of steps in there, like, but the best book that exists about how to have tough conversations is a book called crucial conversations.

It wools, every startup founder must read it. It’s like, there’s so many hard conversations you need to have in life, whether it’s around like firing people around, you know, when someone has like badly missed expectations when someone is not getting the thing, the thing, promotion, area, whatever else that they want.

When you’re having. Someone’s threatening to like sue you, or you’ve got a customer who’s like losing their mind or like a million other sort of tough conversations. Like let alone also like, like spousal conversations or, or like just, you know, friends and family, like tough ones there. And I am not an expert at all and I still do stupid mistakes or all the time.

But like this book gives you a really good framework into thinking about like fight or flight, you know, which they sort of had this thing about silence or violence, like, you know, people sort of retreat into this silent mode through a degree of criticism and then sort of stop piping up, which is like, again, terrible for like, if you’re employing someone and they are just like, you’ve kind of shamed them into this, like this silent vibe we used to get, you’re not getting any value out of them.

Like this is a completely ridiculous thing to have done. And in the violence part of like, you know, this sort of this sort of angry reaction and sort of. And it may not be like, you know, big yelling and shouting in the meeting. It can come out in other ways. But again, this sort of, this triggering thing of fight or flight is like very real.

And I think that that book just has so many useful frameworks and ways of thinking through conversations and way of framing them. It’s like, it really is like, it’s a very, very, very good book. It’s a super American, super American self-helpy sort of style. So like, I’d have to wade through a little bit that side, but it’s not long.

I think the audio book is actually like six hours or whatever so you can punch it out in an afternoon if you have hyper keen. 

AT: I know this is a bit of an awkward conversation to have openly, but I love what you’ve shared today is that is it. You need to have that transparency and openness.

AT: No one is perfect. I know that I’ve made endless mistakes in this regard. And I think the reading, the books and trying to learn from other people’s mistakes is a really crucial one. So I’m going to get those links off of you. I’m going to share it with the community. You pop it in the links in the show notes, but I have to thank you for your time. It’s such a topic, a great topic that a lot of teams struggle with, and it did seem to strike a chord in the community. So I appreciate your time, your openness and hopefully we’ll catch you another time on Munch & Learn? 

MT: Mate, would love too! 

AT: Awesome, thanks Mark and we’ll talk soon. Thanks to everyone and we’ll catch you at the next Munch & Learn.

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