Managing Upwards – Always Take Care of Your “Monkeys”

In a separate article, I talked about a famous Harvard Business Review (HBR) article,  “Who’s Got the Monkey?”, and why an effective manager must let his team take care of the “Monkeys” (problems discovered during their work).  Today, I want to shift focus and talk about tips for the team members — How can you excel as an individual contributor and demonstrate that you are ready for a management position?

take initiativeAs a team member, your goal is not only to excel at your job, but to be promoted to a team manager some day. In order to do that, you have to demonstrate four important qualities:

  1. Delivery of quality work  – It’s not enough to finish something on time — the quality of your work matters to your work reputation. Make sure you know the context of your work, why your work matters, and make sure that the result of your work helps solve at least part of a business problem.
  2. Take ownership of problems from start to finish  Show that you have the persistence to solve an issue (take care of a “monkey”) from start to finish. This doesn’t mean that you need to know everything. You can get help from your manager and others along the way. However, you must show that you are always on top of it, and are proactively getting the work done, even when you need others to help you.
  3. Be proactive in making progress –  Take control and ownership of your work, and propose ways to make progress even if you hit an unexpected barrier.  The HBR article talks about 5 levels of initiative:
    a. Wait until told what to do.
    b. Ask what to do.
    c. Make a recommendation, then take resulting action.
    d. Act, but get advice at once.
    e. Act on your own, then routinely report.
    You want to strive to always do c, d, or e, depending on the work and your level of knowledge.
  4. Assist in managing others – Beyond just taking care of your own issues, you can start to demonstrate that you can informally help others. Find opportunities to help others with their “Monkeys.” Soon enough you could be given informal management roles. That is the key stepping stone to a management promotion.

Let’s take an example from the HBR article again. This time I want to talk about what Jones, a team member, could have done differently to accelerate his career toward management:

“Let us imagine a manager is walking down the hall and that he saw one of his subordinates, Jones.  Jones greets the manager with ‘Good Morning, By the way, we’ve got a problem.  You see…’ As Jones continues, the manager recognize in this problem two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention –the manager 1)knows enough to get involved, but 2) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him.  Eventually, the manager says, ‘so glad you brought this up.  I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.’ Then he and Jones part company.”

If you are Jones in this example, what would you have done differently? I can think of three things:

  1. Don’t unload the Monkey on your manager:  The first thing I would do differently is not say, “We’ve got a problem.”  That will worry your manager immediately. Your job is to make your manager’s job as easy as possible. Instead, I would say, “I discovered a problem where I could use your help.” By saying it this way, you still show that you are willing to solve the problem you discovered, and you don’t need your manager to take over.
  2. Prep beforehand, and know what you need help with:  Don’t run to your manager the minute you encounter a problem you cannot solve alone. Think through how you could solve the issue and what kind of help you need from your manager (give you information, approval, support, etc.). This way you can be crisp and clear when you speak to your manager, as your manager will usually have limited time.
  3. Ask for specific help and make it easy:  Once you have provided context on the “Monkey” you discovered, tell the manager what you need from him/her. This will make life so much easier for them. For example, you could say this: “Given this issue, I need to be able to partner with team X to figure out a solution. Can you email the lead manager of team X to get his buy in on partnering up and finding out who I should work with from his team? I can draft that email for you if it’s helpful.” Here, you’ve not only told your manager what you need from him (senior approval to work with team x), but you gave him the option for you to do all the work for him (write the draft request). What manager wouldn’t like this approach?

At the end of the day, the best team members are the ones who do not need to be managed, but instead know when to keep their manager informed/involved, are known for always getting sh** done, and are looked up to by other team members.  The promotion to management is inevitable for these sorts of people.  Best wishes to your career!

Your comments: Can you think of other things Jones could do differently in the above example?  Add your comments and questions below and let’s have a discussion.

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I am always in your corner.

– Lei

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