Legislative staffers enjoy many excellent opportunities to build upon and utilize their unique skill sets to serve the greater good. Whether communications or tech professionals, enforcers of parliamentary procedure, enthusiastic constituent-service providers or policy fanatics, staffers have much to offer and share.
As the individuals who are “closest to the work,” we often find ourselves in positions where we must advise those whose job it is to give us direction—chiefs of staff, staff directors, even legislators themselves. While the managers and principals are recognized for maintaining a big-picture perspective and for thoughtful organizational planning, they may not be as adept at navigating press interviews, researching policy, handling and maintaining equipment, or doing casework.
As so, we must often manage up and keep them informed of how their decisions might impact our abilities to effectively complete our tasks and provide top-notch service and support. This can be difficult given that we may be more accustomed to receiving directives than giving them. What if a manager wants to change too much, or entirely resists change? These are just two of the many questions that may arise as we navigate this sometimes nerve-racking experience. So, how do we do it?
“To manage up successfully, you first need to demonstrate yourself as a reliable and effective staffer,” Luz Martinez, a communications director with the City Council of Washington, D.C., says. “Be sure to establish a strong line of communication.”
Surprise, surprise! You should be in constant communication with your principal to demonstrate knowledge of trends and best practices and understand his or her goals and priorities. Are you an environmental or transportation policy specialist, or do you help to maintain the audiovisual systems in the chambers? Consider following and sharing topical news from other jurisdictions across the country and even around the world. Share information about how your counterparts are managing similar challenges and use this insight to make your staff meetings and discussions more robust. In doing so, others will begin to see you as an expert, which can help to establish the trust needed to form bonds and great rapport and more quickly break down any mental or emotional barriers that could otherwise stifle collaboration.
Once your manager can trust you, they will be more comfortable leaning on you to help them navigate tough situations. —Luz Martinez, a communications director with the City Council of Washington, D.C.
“Once your manager can trust you,” Martinez says, “they will be more comfortable leaning on you to help them navigate tough situations.” When engaging, be mindful of how you present information and the quirks that the principal—and you—bring to the table. In short, watch your usage of trigger words, don’t press sensitive spots and tread carefully when needed. You don’t want misperceptions about your behavior or ability to engage stakeholders to impede success.
You will also want to step into your manager’s shoes by anticipating and addressing her or his needs and fears. Brad Hendrickson, the secretary of the Washington Senate, suggests that rather than simply alert managers to problems, staff should also bring up opportunities and suggestions. “When staff develop options in advance,” he says, “it speeds up the management process.” Once managers and principals see that you assess the landscape from their perspective and account for it in your work plans and strategy development, they will grow more comfortable with you and give greater weight to your decisions.
Your managers and principals will also begin to delegate more challenging tasks to you. Just keep in mind that empathy works both ways. “Good management, be it up or down, requires the ability to delegate and accept delegation,” Hendrickson says. “A wise former boss of mine once told me when I was first promoted to a supervisory role at a young age, ‘Responsibility is granted, but authority is earned.’”
Be kind to all those you work with. Having buy-in from your peers will go a very long way.
There is no one way to manage up, and with each new boss, you may have to adapt your style. However, by using the suggestions above, you can grow into a trusted adviser and become one of your team’s most relied-on members.
Emmanuel Brantley is a communications director with the City Council of Washington, D.C., where he also has served as a legislative assistant, interim committee director and regularly assisted with constituent casework.