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Self-Management Won't Get You Far Enough, Especially Now

Updated: May 31, 2021

Followership in the Yin Yang of Leadership - Part 3

Self-management has taken considerable centerstage ever since more than half of white collar workers were forced into remote work overnight. But it won't get you anywhere, not unless you make "managing upwards and outwards" second nature.

Having navigated widely distributed organizations, answering to half a dozen key stakeholders at any one time and worked from wherever I could get connected, I will tell you that it is the real secret to progressive self-efficacy and thriving in a hybrid worklife.

Don't Make Physical Isolation Professional Isolation

Anything from organizing, goal-setting, time-management, stress management, self-care or productivity tracking has been written and talked about. The problem with these countless self-management tips is they confuse the real issues about working from home (WFH).

Few tell you how to work effectively with others while you're holed up with kids to care for and space you don't really have. Certainly, none help with overcoming the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome that is impacting career prospects and professional growth over the last year.

Don't get me wrong. Making time for your wellbeing and organizing certainly gives self-efficacy a boost, but if you do them in isolation of other factors, it will leave you even more invisible. Consider time management for a second - a much touted self-managing skill.

No matter how organized your synchronized calendar looks, are you still feeling like you're constantly playing catch-up or coming late to a decision? Does the day seem endlessly long? Yet, you wished you had more time, or so you think.

All we have is 24 hours in a day. Whether you are a super parent and diligent employee or not, that's all you get. So, instead of trying to squeeze more into the time you have, maybe it's time to decide what trade-offs you can afford. It's not about doing less but focusing on what's important with others, "in its whole", to do even better.

Many years ago, I had to care for an elderly loved one who was in hospital unexpectedly. I couldn't take time off being just one month into a new role with a new boss. At the same time, I had to convince him to let me work thousands of miles away, with a seven-hour time difference. He was sympathetic and agreed when I managed his expectations in prioritizing time-sensitive deliverables while letting go others.

That give and take became our shared agreement of what's important "in its whole". That was not the first, nor was it the last time I had "managed" my boss' expectations and our relationship, or those of countless others I never shared an office with. Here's my secret.

Stakeholder vs Boss Mindset

The first cue is how you think of the relationship you have with the people who matter in your worklife, whether you are an individual contributor or are responsible for others. To me, my "bosses" were not my superiors and the people "under" me were not my subordinates.

Everyone who has a stake in your outcomes, successful or otherwise, is your stakeholder, and vice-versa. Your manager, your manager of managers, your teammates, your peers from other departments, their managers or team members, partners, you name it. That's why self-management is insufficient to be effective, however you work, for two very good reasons.

Firstly, any co-worker relationship you have is because of a mutual fit that serves your various interests and that aligns with team, company or organizational goals. Depending on how you own, care and cultivate that fit, you can create positive energy and relational dividends or cause tensions and unnecessary stress.

Secondly, WFH or other barriers beyond physical distance, make it harder for your stakeholders to see how organized, motivated or efficient you are. Then again, do they really care? To them, what's more important is knowing how your work affects them, and what's in it for them, even if they don't or can't articulate it always. Sometimes, this view will be at odds with your life's priorities which you are constantly navigating, like home-schooling your children or caring for a sick family member in a pandemic lockdown.

Managing your stakeholders' expectations and their perceptions of value to match yours is a key part of getting ahead here. This requires a certain mindset shift, combined with strategic skillsets to flip the way management has been practised for far too long.

"Getting Things Done Through People" As A Follower

The inspiring mother of modern management, Mary Parker Follet, never equated her definition, "the art of getting things done through people" with instructing or controlling them. Even back then, Ms Follet was already concerned with value reciprocity and the promotion of positive human relations.

As knowledge-driven organizations are deeply dependent on social and collective intelligence – this original meaning of management is more relevant than ever, regardless of where people fit into your role. Managing upwards and outwards just means you are proactively building positive stakeholder relations with those who outrank you and those who work outside the realm of your control. It recognizes our various interdependencies and the diverse value each of us bring to create a whole that's larger than the sum of its parts.

So what does it take to master the practice of upward and outward management? Frankly, it’s no different from good management skills. For many, the challenge rather, lies in our conditioning of archaic top-down authority and biases. It won't be easy to unlearn these and you will definitely have to work harder and smarter to counter such reflexes from the bottom up. Then again, nothing worth doing is truly easy.

A few blogposts back, I talked about Rosa Parks and the five traits she demonstrated as a powerful follower. In my book, upward and outward management starts with powerful followership traits because they underscore the values and desire of capable, free-thinking individuals to be more than just sheep being shepherded by others.

You probably do some of them quite instinctively already, but that's where the crux is. As long as they remain within the recesses of your mind, they will only be good for your own awareness with no impact to others, much less your worklife and professional growth. You need to manifest them to innovate or create new value for yourself and with others, before you start seeing the benefits.

The question is what behaviours and skillsets build on powerful followership traits to be good at managing upwards and outwards?

Managing Upwards and Outwards As Second Nature

At the core are what I call 5-star behaviours that lead to productive stakeholder management and relations. With each of them, I've listed key skills that are either self-descriptive or correspond to the WEF Future of Jobs 2020 report. You'll notice that certain ones keep coming up, underpinning the behaviours of effective upward and outward management.

Master these and they'll become second nature to how you operate and manage your stakeholder relations meaningfully.

1. Build Reciprocal Value

Recognize what you have in common, what values you share and how each of your successes benefit the other and to what degree. The more intertwined they are, the more this stakeholder will matter to you. If there are differences in views or goals, how you resolve discord and negotiate a win-win is going to be key.

The constant notion of how much each of you can or are willing to give and what is being offered that's worthwhile to either party will constantly need to be re-calibrated. Where that threshold sits is open to dialogue for mutual understanding of common interests and risk boundaries. The more risky the change, the bigger the sacrifice and the gain will be. This is also the behaviour that measures desired productive outcomes rather than mindless input and output controls.

Key skills: critical thinking; persuasion and negotiation; reasoning, problem-solving and ideation; decision-making in ambiguity; conflict management/resolution; showing up positively; active listening, managing difficult conversations, value definition and monitoring.

2. Anticipate and navigate stakeholder expectations

To negotiate well, you need to learn how to get in front of what's going on, as well as who stands to lose or win and how much. This requires seeing bigger than what you do, and knowing your stakeholders, their sphere of influence, where the interdependencies are and how you are relevant.

Then, by anticipating and honing your insights, you can intervene or help shape a decision that impacts you or your work before it even gets made. For example, I've co-shaped a strategic initiative I wanted to be part of, and got appointed to lead it as a result. Other times, it's simply the right thing to do to mitigate risks, or to identify synergies, co-innovate and create bigger value.

Key skills: information-gathering and sense-making; analytical thinking and innovation; reasoning, problem-solving and ideation; creativity, originality and initiative; service orientation; emotional intelligence; interpersonal communications, observation; networking.

3. Co-own team decisions/commitments

In a consensus-building culture, it's easy to own the collective decision because most differences and arguments would have been hammered out before. In a more hierarchical organization, strategic decision-making may still rest with higher-ups as they might be privy to aspects of risks that you are not. Assuming that you had attempted (1) and done (2) but to no avail. In that case, agree to disagree but get behind the decision quickly and actively. Your discretion of knowing when to back down and play as a team, and your openness to deal outside of your comfort zone will not go unnoticed over time.

The only caveat I would put on this point is to understand when this needs to be an exception rather than the rule. The exception is when the decision props up injustices, goes against ethical, moral and legal practices or violate your beliefs and values in serious ways.

Key skills: teamwork; active listening; active learning and learning strategies; emotional intelligence; service orientation, playing to rules; collaborative leadership; strategic delivery; information-gathering and sense-making, adaptability; analytical thinking and innovation.

4. Inform, communicate, and inform again

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of purpose-filled and purposeful communications. It's always underestimated, especially in engineering space and appetite for others to listen. This is harder to do because you'll hold little formal power. Getting their attention, then, making it count requires careful preparation. Senior executives for example, don't have a lot of time. If you spend more than 10 minutes to get your point across, you're already taking too much time.

Something else that no one talks about is to give your stakeholders "bragging rights". Keep them abreast, yes, but also capture your agreed value with them into a narrative and help them tell it like it's theirs. In managing up, you don't want to be the spokesperson but the speechwriter. Then, when you are given the spotlight, step out confidently and don't shirk from the opportunity. You do that by always being prepared, as though you are the spokesperson.

Key skills: active listening; emotional intelligence; service orientation, building narrative and storytelling; visual and written tools; resourcefulness; adaptability; creativity, originality and initiative; critical thinking and analysis; persuasion and negotiation, giving feedback.

5. Make strong allies and mentors

As management is the art of getting things done through others, this should be a no-brainer. No one can make things happen without the backing, influence and help of others. With little or no formal authority, your support network is your power, and you'll want to ensure those relationships are strategic in serving a mutual cause, whether they are friends or not.

In organizations, mentors are essential to your professional advancement without having conflicting interest that your manager may have. For instance, leaving your job may be good for you, but bad for your stakeholders. A good mentor will nudge you in the direction that's in your best interest and will also vouch for you.

Key skills: active listening; resourcefulness; active learning and learning strategies; networking; interpersonal communication; emotional intelligence; time-management; analytical thinking and innovation; persuasion and negotiation; service orientation.

Flexibility, Confidence and Trust versus Controls

You might say that sounds like a lot of effort you didn't sign up for. True, sometimes it's going to throw you into precarious situations and challenge logical self-preservation. Sometimes, you have to give someone else the limelight as you force yourself to wait patiently in the wings because their voice is more impactful to your cause.

But other times, you'll learn to assess and calculate risks to come out more confident. You'll hone soft power and augment your informal influence - both hallmarks of adaptive and collaborative leadership. You'll further develop all those future-proof soft skills that are highly in demand. And they will be your choices, which you don't make lightly. In fact, you choose because you expect to gain, grow and remain relevant to the purpose you share with others, without compromising on the values and priorities you hold dear.

Some of the best places to work encourage and enable upward and outward management. Having had the fortune of working in a few of them, I would go as far as saying that it is the secret to thriving as a knowledge professional, especially in hybrid work formats that are becoming a worklife staple. Greater flexibility, confidence and trust are typically generated as a result. When that happens, there will be less need for archaic managerial controls to prove human productivity.

Self-management + stakeholder management = meaningful self-efficacy and performance.

What do you think? Are you an upward and outward manager?

Come and join the conversations of "new world leaders" and maybe you'll learn something valuable about what needs to change for yourself and your workplace. Our next New World Leader (NWL) Conversations virtual meetup is on 9 June. See you there?



  • W. David Rees and Christine Porter; Skills of Management, 5th Edition; Thomson Learning, 2001.

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