Want to move up the startup ladder? Start managing from day one

by Steli Efti
Chaplin - Climbing the ladder copy-min

Salespeople are an ambitious group. We want to close more deals. Blast through quotas. Beat the competition. But it’s not just sales ambitions that we set our sights on. We’re also ambitious about moving up in our careers. Unfortunately, in our rush to become great salespeople, most people ignore a critical skill that every startup CEO is looking for: Being a great manager.

As I’ve written about before, just because you’re a great salesperson, doesn’t mean you’ll be a great sales manager. Being a leader takes a completely different skill set. Yet too many startup employees think they can’t learn to start managing until they have “manager” in their job title. This is just wrong.

By using a simple method I call “managing up the ladder,” you can start practicing and building your management skills with everyone from your most junior teammate to your CEO.

How a new marketing hire started managing me (i.e. his boss)

The best way to explain “managing up the ladder” is with a quick story.

As the CEO of a fast-growing startup, I spend most of my time in a leadership position. I’m managing the people I work with. Making decisions about company strategy. And going out and building key relationships.

It’s a demanding role. And most people in a non-leadership position would be intimated and not want to “bug” me with requests. But not Ryan Robinson.

As a senior content marketer, Ryan’s been an amazing asset to our company. But one of my favorite things about him is that whenever he needs something from me, he manages me. Instead of just asking for a quote, intro, or feedback and then offloading the responsibility of that task to me. Ryan actively follows up, sets deadlines, and pushes me if I’m not doing what I said I would do.

He essentially becomes my manager for this task.

Here’s an example. When Ryan needed an intro to a CEO for our Virtual Sales Summit, he sent me this email:

Hey Steli!

Can you please ping [very important CEO] and encourage them to respond to my message so I can get him involved in our webinar series?

I’ve already written up the email and attached it. All you have to do is copy/paste and send it.

And Steli, I know you’re really busy. So I’m going to be checking in on you in two days to see if you’ve had the chance to send this as it’s a timely issue and needs to be done.

I appreciate your help!

Let me break down why I this approach is so good and why it stuck out to me.

Not only does Ryan send a message that clearly lays out what he needs. But he doesn’t let go of the responsibility to see it through. Instead of assuming I will take this task and run with it, he maintains the responsibility for getting it done. In one email and series of follow-ups, he shows me that:

  1. He respects my time: The ask is as frictionless as possible by telling me what he wants, how I can do it, and even preparing the text for me.
  2. He’s owning the responsibility for getting his job done: I know he’s set his own deadlines and how I fit into them.
  3. He has management skills without having a manager title: By telling me when he’s going to check in and following through with it, I see him acting as a manager.

And sure enough, if I forget I know that Ryan will follow up with me in two days and make sure this gets done. Just like a good manager would. He’s managing his project and his to-dos. And when he needs me as a resource, he’s managing me. And I love it.

Why most startup employees are afraid to “manage” their leaders

Unfortunately, not many startup employees take this same initiative. Startups are always pushing the rules of business. But for some reason a few very old ideas about working relationships have stuck around.

First, too many employees are stuck in the mindset that only managers can manage. They believe they can only manage people they’ve been given explicit permission to manage and base their relationships solely on the company’s Org chart.

Second, they have a lack of confidence in themselves. People aren’t used to maintaining responsibility. And so when they ask for help from a more senior person, they instantly offload the responsibility to them. They assume they’ll get it done and are afraid as coming across as annoying by following up and managing the relationship.

Lastly, there’s a fear you’re going to rub someone’s ego the wrong way. Not every leader takes kindly to being “managed.” And there’s always a fear that you’ll come across as demanding or pushy by following up with a more senior person.

These are all valid concerns. And while managing up the ladder isn’t something you can do in every corporate organization, in a healthy startup culture it should be totally possible. More than that, it should be encouraged.

When you learn to manage up the ladder, you get more than a lesson in leadership

There’s magic that unfolds when you realize you can manage anyone. When you manage up the ladder you have zero responsibilities to be a great manager. No one’s looking at you for your management skills. You can experiment and practice and learn and build the muscles of leadership, before being put in that position.

And without the power dynamics of managing someone who knows you’re their boss, you learn to treat the relationship very carefully. You don’t want to be aggressive or too demanding. Instead, you have to be tactful and learn how to work with people. Not just tell them what to do.

But this is the way you should manage people in all situations. And if you learn how to do this early on, people in leaderships positions will take notice and want to promote you asap.

Not only is managing up the ladder going to accelerate your promotion to management and leadership, but it will prepare you for it—something most people never get the chance to do.

Learning how to manage turns your ambition into action

When I look at my best employees, they’re not just people who put their head down and do their work. They’re the people who aren’t afraid to experiment, try new things, learn, and grow.

There’s nothing stopping you from learning how to manage before you have direct reports. And I can tell you from experience that the more you learn how to manage people above you, the more those same people will take notice of you.

Startups live and die by pushing boundaries. And if you want to succeed and truly thrive at one, you have to push your own boundaries as well. It’s not just about having the title and being told you’re a manager. You need to go out there, learn the skills, and prove you’re a leader.

Want to get better at managing others? One of the most important aspects of managing people is following up with them effectively! That's why I've written The Follow-Up Formula, a book filled with actionable advice for anyone who wants accomplish more.

Get The Follow Up Formula

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