Managing Up

March 12, 2013

Early in my career, a partner pointed out to me that one of the most challenging aspects of being a lawyer is that you are staffed on multiple projects for multiple bosses simultaneously.  Multiple projects mean deadlines and expectations will often conflict – or at the least require some careful planning and late nights.  Multiple bosses mean adapting your approach and presentation to style of each senior associate and partner (and later client) for whom you work.  Multiple projects for multiple bosses means that the difficult task of satisfying the high standards reflected by your astounding billing rate and impressive salary may be exponentially more difficult than you hoped (or feared).  What makes this harder still is fact that usually no one but you is aware of the projects you are working on, that no one but you knows the deadlines and expectations you must meet.

The partner – who later became my mentor and champion — made this observation to me the day after I had failed to “safely land all the planes circling O’Hare”:   I had missed a deadline.  Not catastrophically, but the miss had required him to change his plans and, worse, required him to call the client to inform her that he was not going to meet her expectation that she would get the document that afternoon to review for the conference call the next day.

I had, in my mind, a pretty good reason for missing the deadline – I had been working non-stop on another project for another partner, a project that was much more time-sensitive and was more critical to the transaction than the one for my mentor-to-be.   My mentor agreed fully with this assessment.  I had in his mind allocated my time and energy appropriately.  But he was nevertheless disappointed.  I had crashed his plane.  Needlessly.

Here is what how I could have landed his plane safely:   Soon after I got swept into the time-sensitive matter, I could have (and should have) seen that it would require all my time and as a result I would likely not have time to complete my mentor-to-be’s assignment.  I needed to have had the presence of mind – or perhaps it was the courage – to say to him early:  I know I promised you a draft in 2 days, but an important assignment just came in on the matter I am working on for Partner XX and I am worried I will not have time to complete your assignment in time.  Had I said this to him, he could have adjusted course in any number of ways: gotten another associate to do the draft; talked to Partner XX to give me time to work on his assignment (perhaps by getting someone to help on the time-sensitive assignment;  had 2 days rather than 1 night to do the draft himself; or altered the client’s expectations early enough that the impact would not be as great.    I had in short failed to manage up.

And in the land of multiple projects for multiple bosses, managing up is key to surviving and thriving.