How to Manage Up: Bow To The Bundt

Bundt cakes are reminiscent of a royal crown and a chocolate marbled pound cake with bittersweet ganache drizzle is the perfect amount of fancy for a managing up discussion. This glorious cake has many steps, as will your managing up journey; both endeavors are well worth the extra effort.

Your curtsy could use some polish.

Chocolate and vanilla marble pound cake
Bow To The Bundt Cake

Managing up is an important skill to master for a successful career. Scrapping titles in favor of more egalitarian business relationships is trending, however, the hospitality industry remains a steadfast bastion of peremptory feudal order brimming with pomp and circumstance as well as secret rules of conduct. We are not pondering the reasons why, as an industry, we cling to imperial management paradigms since that is a heady topic and we are not a group of deep contemplators. Let’s gloss over the bigger issue and get back to the practical instruction of managing up, shall we? A game of thrones, indeed.

Managing up takes on many guises but to keep it simple, here are four basic categories in which to evaluate general managing up proclivities:

The Sycophants – The quintessential brown-nosers agreeing with everything and imagining disagreement to be a form of heresy punishable with banishment from the castle evermore. First in line to kiss the ring, they earn their position through servitude. Some are qualified but many are nuisances in varying degrees to everyone but the royal he or she is serving. These folks pop-up in field positions without qualifications while people whisper sideways, “he’s a friend of so-and-so.”

The Anarchists – These are renegades that see injustice everywhere, dislike everyone equally and teeter at the edge of blatant disrespect narrowly escaping terminable scrapes. Inventing new ways to thumb their noses at higher-ups is a favorite game so they rarely make it into top executive positions having stomped on many toes along the way. Primarily found in independent hotel environments or upon occasion a branded hotel in the middle of Nowheresville, far from the proverbial castle, to be tolerated while the numbers are good.

The Clueless – Completely unaware of the notorious game of managing up is the largest population by far, The Clueless. Just assume that you fall into this category if you have trouble interpreting the double-talk and double standards that pervade your company and are generally trying to take people at their word. Bless! Or perhaps you are contemplating a righteous mission to correct some egregious wrong and expose bad leaders because, in your mind, the King or Queen must have no idea what is really going on and as a loyal subject it is your duty to shine a light on the incompetence. You believe that you are the Alicia Keys kind of this girl is on fire but you will end up like the Joan of Arc version of career up in flames fire so please keep reading so you can move out of the clueless category quickly.

The Masters –These are the fast-tracked, promoted, wunderkinds that understand the system, personifying a dutiful servant of the crown all the while playing their own game. They don’t always agree with the bosses yet seem to have a sixth-sense about the perfect amount of disagreement that an organization can absorb and process effectively. Criticisms are carefully worded so as not to bruise egos and they are friendly but don’t have their heads too far up anyone’s backside. Instead of getting twisted about the fairness of a situation, Masters discern what their audience needs to hear and deliver a palatable story on a silver platter. They understand the game above and below their station and navigate their careers like Buddha ninjas, focusing on contributions they know will be highly rewarded. Don’t expect them to share their playbook as their cards are kept close to the vest. Watch and learn; you are sure to receive a valuable managing up education.

So how do they do it?

After observing of a number of Masters at work in multiple organizations over many years, I sussed out what I believe to be the root skill that differentiates them.

It’s not a Machiavellian superpower as I had secretly hoped; instead, it is the exact opposite talent known as highly developed empathy.

Plain old boring yet effective empathy. Incredulous sigh. A principle like empathy requires a high-minded level of consciousness, overall maturity and a truce with using mortal combat as an option for daily problem solving. I was devastated with the realization and in no mood for character building. No, no, no! The truth that I did not want to find is that people that manage up, and stay up the best, have well developed slow-twitch empathy muscles. They are the distance runners of empathy, figuring out how they can be of assistance to everyone, including their boss, while simultaneously achieving their own goals.

This is what it looks like:

  1. They seek to understand what their boss needs to be successful instead of just seeing the boss as someone that should be serving her/him or the nincompoop that is standing in the way of the next promotion. In doing so, he/she learns the language and expectations of the next level of business. Masters can put their own aspirations on hold for a bit while they figure out what the goals of the organization are from a different perspective. They make the bosses look good engendering confidence, which results in promotions and additional responsibilities. Not exactly a mind-blowing revelation, but ask yourself how invested in anyone’s success you are, besides your own.
  1. Masters see themselves as a small, but important, part of a much larger picture. This perspective provides an advantage because they don’t see every situation through the lenses of it’s all about me. Instead, they ask how can I make this situation work for me while leaving all of the emotional baggage for their less capable colleagues to carry around. You won’t catch them commiserating. There is a healthy ego in place but perspective creates a discernment of knowing exactly how much to contribute, not too much and not too little. Their empathy is not the self-sacrificing Sycophantian-style; it’s balanced, strategic and flexible. Further, their empathy is not clueless either as their eyes are wide open about all the games being played at each level of the organization.
  1. Masters play the long game. Your career is a marathon and Master’s don’t quit in a huff taking their Barbies home when new management rearranges the furniture in the Dream House. Masters understand that there are multiple ways to arrange pink plastic furniture and adapt. They find the bright spots like driving Barbie’s convertible corvette to the bank to deposit that bonus check. Cha-ching! They leave organizations for better opportunities but exit with grace keeping all bridges intact and relationships secured.

Oh dear, you are thinking, that sounds like a lot of work and I don’t really want to help my boss because I don’t like her. You have two choices: change your attitude or find a new boss. Either way, do it quickly because you have a lot of work to do.

Exercises to start building your empathy and managing up muscles:

  • Set up a meeting with your supervisor and ask her/him some of these questions:
    • What is the most challenging part of the job? Besides managing you, of course.
    • What does her/his boss expect? How does that person communicate what is expected? Dig around here for secret expectations.
    • What are the biggest challenges, from her perspective, that face the business? It may be different than question one.
    • Ask how your hotel/team is viewed at the next level, regional, area or corporate teams. Are you part of the best team in the organization? If not, then why?
    • Is there anything that you can do to assist, outside of doing your job awesomely, that would make a difference to the team?
    • Ask if you can join a next-level meeting that your role would not usually be invited to so you can begin to grow your perspective.
  • Make amends if you have not supported key initiatives your boss was attempting to implement. Only do this if you really mean it, the truth will be written across your forehead. This is a good indicator of how serious you are about taking a step up.
  • Stop comparing your boss to Don Shula or whomever you are imagining would be a more perfect boss. Acknowledge the strengths you can see and know that there are likely many more that you can’t see. Learn everything you can from this person and realize that many years from now you will have a different perspective regarding what he actually taught you. If you can’t find common ground for whatever reason, then find a new opportunity because you are holding yourself back from learning.
  • Try sitting through a sales or operations meeting and listening (otherwise known as not talking) to what the members of your team really need. Not what they are saying but the emotional need behind what they are saying. Just practice getting people.

If you are endeavoring to be promoted, then learn the rules of engagement and build your empathy muscles. Understand the proverbial bow or curtsy your EVP is expecting. Master the secret language of the budget process, double-talk and secret handshakes but…

Stay above the fray by reminding yourself that you are not actually a feudal indentured bundt, you are just pretending to be one for a paycheck at the moment.

Once you become a Master, you may as well rule your own empire, you will have the skill set after all. Should you decide not to play the game, then no problem. Just don’t be surprised when you don’t get promoted.

Recipe adapted from Chocolate-Swirl Chocolate Pound Cake, Chocolate Cakes by Elinor Klivans.

This recipe is for a large cake, so if you have a smaller Bundt, then fill a few muffin molds with the extra batter or if you have a mini loaf pan that works like a charm, too. In the excitement of getting this gorgeous cake into the oven, I inadvertently overfilled the pan so my Bundt runneth over creating a very large but delicious mess in the oven.


3 oz chopped unsweetened chocolate

6 oz semisweet chopped chocolate


2 and 3/4 cup flour

½ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

Mix until light and fluffy

1 ½ cups butter

1 ½ cups sugar

1 ½ cups brown sugar

Then add

6 large eggs

2 Tablespoons vanilla extract

Then add melted chocolate, followed by 1 cup of sour cream and the flour mixture until incorporated.

Bake at 325 in greased pan for approximately an hour and 10 minutes. Toothpick test to ensure it’s done.

Cool then drizzle with ganache glaze, optional but highly recommended.

Disclaimer: The story and recipe above should not be considered advice as the readers and users of Chocolate Cake Mondays are not clients and therefore CCM is not liable for reader’s reliance on the information herein.