The Art of Managing Up, Down & Sideways

Michelle Acciavatti Willis Towers Watson

It doesn’t matter where you are in the corporate hierarchy. Nearly all jobs require working with people and managing up, down, or sideways. Today we speak with Willis Towers Watson market leader Michelle Acciavatti about the art of managing. Starting at the entry-level, Michelle gives tips on managing up and impressing the bosses by creating ‘presentation-ready’ work. A recurring theme throughout our conversation, Michelle emphasizes the importance of developing an empathetic viewpoint, thinking one step ahead, and trying to understand other perspectives. Linking to his and on the subject of dealing with unreasonable bosses, Michelle advises that listeners operate the framework that 99.9% of people are rational people. Empathy can help you understand their position. We then dive into managing down and why developing your team can free you up to do more tasks. We talk about the false conception that people need managing when really, your role is to manage tasks, problems, and deliverables. Another key theme, Michelle discusses why teams need trust and honesty before sharing how you can develop this within your team. Finally, we tackle how to manage sideways, with Michelle highlighting the need to build strong relationships. As you move up, Michelle explains, having a strong team that can give you honest feedback is critical to your success.

Key Points From This Episode

  • The three vantage points to consider when managing up.
  • Generating ‘presentation-ready’ work from an empathetic viewpoint.
  • How to manage up when your boss seems like an unreasonable person.
  • Finding common ground and operating from the framework that 99.9% of people are rational.
  • Common challenges faced when managing down and why no one works for you.
  • Developing the people below you instead of managing them.
  • Why trust and honesty are key in developing your team.
  • How to build trust and honesty within the team that you’re working with.
  • How not letting the ‘perfect’ get in the way of the ‘good’ can give you time to nurture your connections.
  • Why building relationships is the most important aspect of your career.
  • The importance of developing an honest team when you reach upper-management levels.
  • Seeking out people with different perspectives and skillsets.


[00:00:01] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Branch Out, a Connection Builder’s podcast. Helping middle-market professionals connect, grow and excel in their careers. Through a series of conversations with leading professionals, we share stories and insights to take your career to the next level. A successful career begins with meaningful connections.

[00:00:22] AD: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Branch Out. I’m your host, Alex Drost. Today’s guest is Michelle Acciavatti, a market leader with Willis Towers Watson. Michelle and I discussed the art of managing up, down and sideways. Hope you all enjoy.

[00:00:37] ANNOUNCER: Connect and grow your network. We are on LinkedIn. Search for Connection Builders.


[00:00:44] AD: Michelle, welcome to Branch Out. I’m looking forward to this conversation today.

[00:00:47] MA: Hi, Alex. Thanks for having me. Really looking forward to it as well.

[00:00:51] AD: Today, Michelle, you and I are going to talk about managing up, down and sideways and I think it’s such a roller topic. Just to give some backdrop for our listeners. You and I have met actually through an event that you are presenting on a similar topic to the Detroit Economic Club, and I loved a lot of what you had to say, so I wanted to bring you on to the show here and have you share some of your thoughts. Because I think this is something that we as professionals all deal within our career. You have to manage up, down and sideways throughout your career. We really want to be able to get some of your insights, and some of your thoughts that you’ve learned during your career.

Maybe we start with managing up, what does that mean, what are some of the challenges you encountered and how do you deal with that?

[00:01:32] MA: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the first thing we all do, right? When we all start a job, managing up is the first thing we start to think of. We have to impress our bosses. We have to impress — so there’s a couple things to really think about. You need to understand when you’re managing up, you need to understand the person from a couple of different avenues. We had this conversation. We brought a client in to talk to some of our colleagues and I love the way he phrased this and he said, “You need to think about the person from three different vantage points. As a person, what are they dealing with from personal perspective and what are they bringing to the table from a personal perspective? As a role, what is their role, and what are they trying to accomplish, and what are they facing within their role? Lastly as the company. As they’re working for the company, what types of things as the company being faced with that maybe pressing down on them that they’re not ready for?”

I just love that framework, because it really hits all facets and you really want to think about as you are managing up, you’re giving them something, and I call it presentation ready, having something presentation ready. Where are they going to take it? What questions are they going to get when they get it? When they past it on to others, where is it going? Think that one step ahead to even think about them in the person, role and company. You really have to be thinking about things from an empathetic view point, right? You have to try to put yourself in their shoes. Where is it going to go? What are they experiencing? What other challenges, or deadlines or things like that are they facing? How do you give them the best you can possibly give them so they can move on?

[00:03:10] AD: I think you said some really important things there. One, again, the empathy, right? It’s stepping back, and I think no matter where you’re at, as a manager, empathy is important. But especially as you’re managing up and you’re going to someone that is senior to you and bringing something to them, or bringing in a request, or a suggestion, or trying to accomplish something with someone above you when you are in that situation, having empathy, put yourself in their shoes to think about what you’re saying, and what you’re requesting and what you’re asking to be done because it’s all too easy to only see the world through our own eyes. Which I’m a big believer, only know the world through our eyes. That’s why empathy is so hard for everyone. Empathy though is taking that second to step back and say, “Okay. I know it from my perspective, but what if I was in their shoes? What if I was them?” Right?

The point you said there, I love the, think about them as a person, think about the role they’re in, and think about the company. I think that does give some really good framework to build that empathy and start to think through that. Now, one challenge that myself experienced and I know many other professionals do. You work for boss that, for lack of a better way of saying it, is an asshole and you have to still manage up. How do you deal with that?

[00:04:24] MA: Well, let’s be honest, 99.9% of people on the planet are good rational human being. They are. There’s the people that you immediately click with and you’re like separated at birth almost, right? Then there’s the people that think differently than you, that approach the world differently than you, that have a different attitude than you. Maybe this person is behaving that way because they’re on the verge of losing their job or maybe they’re behaving that way because they’ve got a really sick kid or really sick parent. You don’t know what anyone is going through at any point in time and you have to start from the framework that 99.9% of people are good rational human being. You’ll find that common ground. I mean, I can tell you story after story of challenging relationships, and then you have the aha moment and you’re like, “Oh! Well, that makes sense.”

If you’ve ever read Stephen Covey’s, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he tells a story at one point in the book. This guy got on a bus with four kids and the kids were all over the place. I mean, acting crazy and whatever. And a gentleman on the bus is getting very irritated like, “Can’t you manage your kids? What’s the matter with you, can’t you manage your kids?” So he strikes up a conversation, not accusatory, but it’s like, “Hey! How’s it going?” Then the guys says, “I’m sorry, I know we’re all over the place but were just coming back from the funeral, I just buried my wife.” Okay, so do you see the world a little differently now? Do you feel bad that you are judging the kids who are all over the place and instantly does your heart open to the guy? Yeah. There’s something there.

[00:06:12] AD: That is, one, I love Covey’s book, absolute must read I think for everyone. What you just said in the story that’s pointed out there, but just the general thought that people are generally good people and I wholeheartedly agree with you, right? Especially as I said, we do find ourselves, and myself included. I have worked for, again, for lack of a better term. I have worked for an asshole and I have been the asshole. What that really is at its fundamental course as you said, for 99.99% of people out there, it’s because something’s going on that’s causing them some stress, some outside influence, outside force that is putting them in a negative mental state that is causing them to react in a way that isn’t pleasurable for whoever is on the other side of it.

It doesn’t mean they as a human are a bad human. When you do re-shift that and you step back and really say, “How can I try to empathize?” I understand, that’s super hard, especially — depending on the role. That can be really, really hard, but you have to be able to do that.

Let’s shift gears in this a bit. We talked about managing up and I love that, as you said, you’ve got to empathize, you’ve got to think about what you’re trying to accomplish, put yourself in their shoes. I assume a lot of that applies in managing down, but can you share some thoughts when you’re looking and now, you’re in a more senior role and you are the one managing someone. How do you think about that and what are some of the challenges that you’ve seen there?

[00:07:39] MA: I mean, first of all, nobody works for you, right? I mean, they just don’t. We are all of free will. I joke about my kids. I mean, I close the — they don’t have to listen to me. They don’t have to, It would be nice, but they don’t have to. When you think about it, the relationship with people that you’re trying to manage down and really not even manage down, people you’re trying to develop. I mean, that’s really what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to develop them. You’re trying to make them — develop them and improve their skills so that they can be you so you can go do something else, right? You’re not going to be able to go do something else if you don’t have a team who can be you. And if you are doing something else and you don’t have a you, you are in big trouble too, right?

You have to start looking at it from a responsibility of development not managing. Then if you think about it that way, there’s two really important facets, right? You have to have trust and you have to be honesty. They have to believe that you are on their side and that you would walk through a wall for them. If you want them to do that for you, they have to know you’ll do it for them and you have to be honest. You can’t truly develop someone by telling them they’re perfect and they do everything right all the time.

By definition, we’re all growing into new roles and growing means we got learning to do, right? So you’re not helping anybody by saying your perfect or avoiding those tough conversations. And I don’t even like to think of them as tough, because if you’re giving someone feedback and it’s coming from a really good place it’s coming from a really good place, it’s coming from the heart, it’s coming from “I’m trying to develop you and you know I’m trying to develop you when we’ve built that trust.” Those aren’t hard conversation. They’re matter of fact. “Hey! Why don’t we try it this way?” I mean, I had a client this week say, and I love this framework. As he was closing out a meeting he said, “Let’s talk about what could have done better in this process.” He said, “But as we talk about it, let’s use the phrase, how to and I wish.”  So instead of, “You didn’t do this” say, “I wish we could have those materials a few days earlier so I could read them earlier and had some thoughts together.” Right? Even just those few little words change the whole direction, the whole heart of the conversation.

[00:09:57] AD: Michelle, you hit on some really important points there. I want to make sure we unpack. One, let’s talk about the value of the nomenclature that we’re using, right? In this specific term, we say managing down. I whole heartedly agree with you. You don’t manage people. You manage problems, you manage tasks, you manage deliverables. You don’t manage people. People have to do the work. As you said, they don’t work for you. As a person sitting in a manager role, it is not your job to force someone to do something because that’s not how the world works. That’s not how people function. It’s your job to create an environment and encourage that person, and give them the support to accomplish the goals that are in front of them.

Now, part of that to your exact point is going to be being in a position of providing feedback of providing some of that loop of, how do I give someone an understanding of where they could have improved, so that they can improve in the future? And to your point, I think they do feel like hard conversations. That doesn’t mean they should be hard conversations and it doesn’t mean that’s the right framework to go in there for a mental standpoint. But it can be difficult and I think it can be difficult because the other aspect you said, trust. If you don’t have enough trust and time built with someone, they immediately may jump to a defensive position, because they don’t know where you’re coming from.

Now, that said, knowing that if I’m in a place of leadership and I am, again, not managing down but rather managing the tasks and working with other people and developing other people, how can I build that trust? What are steps that you can take to genuinely build that trust with the team you’re working with?

[00:11:35] MA: Well, I think it goes back to a lot of the things we said when you’re managing up, right? You have to understand a whole person. There is some aspect of them that comes to work. There is a whole bigger aspect of them that is outside of work, but you have to understand that, you have to take some time and understand that. I think you just have to invest time. There is no way around it. You have to invest time and you honestly have to care. You cannot fake. We’ve all had someone come to you and be like, “That wasn’t genuine.” It’s hard to fake caring. It’s really hard to fake caring.

When you demonstrate that, when you demonstrate that you’ve committed some time, that you’re willing to give time, our most precious gift we can give anyone and you actually care, trust comes pretty easy, right? And you have to have those honest conversations. If you’re perfect and you’ve done everything right your whole entire life, and I don’t know why you’re not the CEO of the company, hard to believe that. I mean, sure, it’s nice to hear. It’s hard to believe that after a while. It’s hard to have true trust in those situations.


[00:12:38] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, a Connection Builders Podcast.


[00:12:48] AD: I want to dive into the care and time aspects, so I think those are very important. And one, back to the genuine care. You’re so right there, you can’t fake care. For anyone listening to this podcast, if you go with someone that you’re working with, and your downline and you say, “Hey, I really care about you. Tell me about how you’re doing.” Then you pick up your phone and start texting. Do you really care? Are you going in with a mentality of, “I heard in a podcast that I’m supposed to say I care, I should go do that”? Or in your heart, deep in your heart, are you sitting there saying, “I care about other people. I genuinely care about other humans and I want to know how this person’s doing. Michelle, how are you doing?” and like really wanting to know that, right?

[00:13:31] MA: Right. Exactly. I mean, let’s be honest. There are people where it comes more — I mean, again, 99.9% are good rational people, so we all do care. We show it in different a way, right? I’m an actuary, and I work with a lot of actuaries. We’re introverts, we don’t want to jump out and share our feelings and all of those sorts of things. I get it. But there’s a human compassion, there’s a human decency and everyone will find their way of doing this in a different way. It could be an email. You’ll find the way that is comfortable for you, and maybe sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable for you and that’s okay, right? You practice it.

You have to spend some time. You have to take two minutes before and after the detailed call to ask how you’re doing and really listen. To know something about the company, to hear some news about the company and shoot an email and say, “Hey, I saw this. Does it affect you? Are you okay?” We talked about during the beginning parts of Corona, we were providing a lot of intellectual capital. We were doing surveys and I was getting information to clients. Here’s what people are doing in pay, and benefits and everything else. The surveys were fast and furious. And you sometimes got to response to those emails, but the email that I sent that just said, “Hey! I’m just thinking about you. I’m sure, it’s crazy right now. Just want to let you know I was thinking about you. You don’t even need to respond back, right? I just wanted to say I was thinking of you.” I got a response in 35 seconds, right? People are craving that, so it’s just time.

[00:15:01] AD: I couldn’t agree with you more, and let’s talk on the time component, right? And this is something that I have struggled with, and I think most professionals, most people in life will struggle with. There’s a lot of things to do. You have a lot — I mean, Michelle, you’ve shared with me as we’re kicking this podcast of, you’re trying to take a day of vacation today as we’re sitting here recording a podcast, right? There is just a lot of things to do.

That comes down to, we all get 24 hours a day. I don’t care who you are, you get 24 of them. How do you spend them? It can be very difficult, especially in the moment to say, “I’m just busy. I’ve got a list of tasks. I got to get working on those tasks.” I just don’t have time. I don’t have time to sit down and talk to them.” Managers and leaders who do that, they never build the trust. They never get that long-term trust component built in there. The foundational of what we’re saying. If that trust isn’t there, it’s going to be really hard to give that honest feedback. It’s going to be really hard to have that team, and to develop that team and have people as you said want to run into a brick wall with you.

[00:16:02] MA: Yeah. I think sometimes when we think time and we have to devote time, I’m going to probably quote a ton of clients because I just feel like I’ve been so blessed with the people I’ve come across in my life, and personal. and career and everything. One of my clients said, “Don’t let perfect to get in the way of good. You can think of, “Well, I want to call this person but I want to have two hours to talk to them and I want to spend half an hour prepping, thinking about what I’m to talk to them about.” Nobody has that kind of time. And yes, there are certain conversations that you have to do that for. But the majority of them, you look at this day and age, how often do you just pick up the phone unscheduled and call someone, right? And when you do, I’ll say it myself. I was driving my son somewhere and I picked up the phone and I called a client. I was like, “I wonder if I should have scheduled time to call.” Like we don’t just pick up the phone and call anymore.

When you do, and they can answer, sometimes they can’t, right? Obviously, they’re busy, but they’re so happy and so surprised. Like, “Hey! This was an unplanned call and the whole rest of my life is completely planned. How nice is this.” It doesn’t have to be this drawn out thing. It’s tons of little things. It’s an instant message. “Hey! How you doing today?” I mean, that can take three minutes. This time when you think of time and you think it’s hours and hours and it’s not. Just pick up the phone, right? Just pick up the phone.

[00:17:30] AD: You’re so right there. What I will say, l believe it comes down to intentionality. This has to be something that you want to do, back to being genuine and caring about someone. You have to genuinely say, “Hey! I care about this person. I’m doing this.” Yes, because it’s the right thing to do as a manager, as a leader.” It certainly will help you in your career. However, at your core, you’re doing that because you care about the other person. And now you’re saying, “Okay. I’m going to build that intentionally into my life and make sure that I’m finding that time to do that. I’m reflecting and saying, have I reached out to so-and-so or have I stayed in touch with people? Am I feeling like I’m able to truly connect with my team and those that I work with” or your clients or anyone that’s your circle and saying, “Am I making those connections? Am I showing that care, giving my time and ultimately building that trust behind it?

[00:18:23] MA: That’s right.

[00:18:24] AD: Let’s shift gears now. We’ve talked about managing up, managing down and lot of similarities. It obviously depends a little bit on what your role is and how that looks, but I think the general themes are very much the same across that. What about managing sideways?

[00:18:38] MA: If you do nothing else in your career, build relationships with your peers. I mean, it is the most important thing you can do in your career, the most. Because if you think about it, as you start to move up in your career, you personally are delivering less and less. You need your teams and you need other teams in your organization to partner with you. And if you don’t have those partnerships, if you don’t have that support, you can’t be successful.

There is this Harvard Business review study done. They were looking at executives who were in line to be the CEO and didn’t get to be the CEO. They investigated what were those reasons why didn’t — you were in the C Suite already, why didn’t you get the final job. Almost 1/3 of the time, it was because they didn’t have clear relationships. So one, that’s a reason. You got to get stuff done. The second is, as you get higher and higher up in your career fewer, and fewer, people will tell you the truth. So you need that core of people who knew you when you were both out of college clueless, who can say, “Hey! I wouldn’t have don’t it that way and you should have don’t it that way. This could have worked out better if you did A, B, C or D.”

There’s so much trust there and there’s so much that you hear it and you appreciate when someone shares it with you. Thirdly, you need people in that peer group who think differently than you. We all know what our strengths and weaknesses are, right? I come up with big ideas, and sometimes when it gets down to the details, I’m like, “Man, I don’t care about the details.” I better have a detailed person who’s right there next to me who can say, “Okay. I love this big idea. Here’s the 25 things I need you to answer so that I can execute this big idea.” Right?

You need people who come at problems from different angles. Because the people you’re serving, your clients, internally, whomever, they’re coming at it from a different way. The more varying points of view you can get before you have a conversation, the better off you’re going to be.


[00:20:40] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, bringing you candid conversations with leading middle-market professionals.


[00:20:49] AD: Michelle, I think that was a phenomenal advice, in talking about how the most important thing you can do in your career is build that. When I step back and hearing everything you’re saying, we talked about earlier this idea that if you’re managing down, you have to have a relationship where you can be honest, where you have trust with someone and you can be honest with them. That goes both ways. We all need feedback. You do not improve without feedback. Simple as that. If you didn’t need the feedback, you would be perfect and you have nothing to improve on, and none of us are that.

You have to get that feedback from somewhere and to your exact point, as you grow in your career, the more and more senior you become, the harder it is to build that genuine trust with other people. Because one, trust takes time. Building trust takes time to have someone that will really come to you and give you honest feedback and to really be able to say, “Hey! How can I improve on this?” And you’re never going to be able to get that unless you start now and you continue to focus on building that.

Let’s say, if you changed jobs and you have to start over, I get it. You have to rebuild that circle and that can be a challenge when you move into a new field or a new career. But for people who are at a firm for a duration of time, if you have 5, 7, 10, 15 years of working with your peers. And yes, there will be turnover, people will come and go, but there will be a core group that you are able to build deep trusting relationships with. They’re going to be the ones that can tell you how it is, to genuinely tell you what you need to do or how you can improve on things. Again, that’s how you get better, that’s how you improve on everything.

[00:22:24] MA: Absolutely. And even if they leave, I mean, I have a client that was — has been client, we’ve never been in the same organization, but we’ve grown up in our careers together and we bounced off each other all the time. I mean, all the time. You need them in your organization because you got get stuff done, but those peers can stay with you for your lifetime.

[00:22:44] AD: I think that’s so true. The last thing I want to hit on, this kind I thin ties everything full circle. Whether you’re managing up, down or sideways, it is this realization that everyone is different, everyone has a different perspective and those differences of perspectives, and opinions, and skillsets are needed to be successful.

[00:23:03] MA: Oh, yeah. I mean, we’re not all good at everything. I’ll take folks on our leadership team. We will go back and forth. I’ll call them up, “You’re going to have to take this one. This is all you. This is your skill. This is like way over. My brain is going to explode.” They’ll call me up and say the same thing. “Hey, I got a tough one here” and I’m like, “Oh, I love that.” I mean, play off of each other. So no, I would absolutely say, in your career, in your life, everywhere, seek out people who are different than you. There is so much to be gained from those relationships. Perfect if you think seek them out.

[00:23:41] AD: So true. What’s really difficult at times, I think so many of us. Again, we only see the world through our eyes. We think our way is right. I think that’s a natural human instinct to think that way and you have to force yourself to make sure you’re really stepping back and saying, “Am I asking for other points of view? Do I have people around me that are different and that view things different, that act differently?” Listen, I can talk and say, “You and I have a similar personality style.” Big picture, go after, come up with the grand idea and ran at it, and look into the future. “Ah, the details, they’ll figure themselves out.”

Well, if there’s no one around you looking at the details, you’re going to trip over yourself. It’s going to happen, no doubt, right? You need to have those people in your life or else you’re going to fall flat in your face. Whether that’s personally or professionally, they have to be there in your circle.

[00:24:29] MA: That’s right. You can’t do it all. You can’t. Again, we’ve got the 24 hours like you said. You can’t. You need to find people who have different strengths than you, and that’s when you can create something that’s meaningful.

[00:24:42] DA: I think that is so well said. Michelle. I really appreciate your time on here today. I think this was a great conversation around management. Obviously, we didn’t dig into all of the gory details around it, but when you really step back and just summarizing everything we said here, you have to have empathy. You have to really look and say, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You have to give time, genuinely care for someone to build trust to get that honest feedback. Then most importantly, you have to recognize everyone is different and you need that diversity of thought and skillset in your career and in your life in general. Again, Michelle really appreciate you coming on here and sharing some of your thoughts. I’m excited for our listeners to hear this.

[00:25:23] MA: Thank you. It’s a great time. I appreciate being invited.


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