The A to Z of Arts Management - Upward Management

For years I’ve been an arts manager, an arts board member and an occasional arts management academic. And although there are some great arts management books to both learn from and teach with, they only seldom combine theory and practice, insights of success and failure, and story telling to help people understand how to do their job better. In this series, I introduce a selection of neglected aspects and competencies from my book “The A to Z of Arts Management”. This final chapter is about how leaders in the arts can upwardly manage stakeholders with a powerful impact on their work, and enable staff to upwardly manage their bosses as well.

Unless you own your own company or are the Board Chair, there’s always going to be someone with authority over you. Understanding how they work will help you do your job better because your relationship with them is one of “mutual dependence between two fallible human beings” (Gabarro & Kotter 2005, p. 94). It’s also a relationship that has to be negotiated efficiently whether it’s a part time volunteer Board Chair or a CEO with a number of other direct reports, their time and energy for you is limited.

Hill & Lineback (2013, p.4) explain why one might have an uneasy relationship with one’s boss. Firstly, “a boss plays conflicting roles: supporter and evaluator, which can create confusion” and secondly, because you bring your past experience with a different boss into the new relationship.  They offer some ideas about you can do to make yourself indispensable to your boss and the organisation such as collaborating with others, putting up your hand to do new/extra tasks, driving your own growth and being positive even in the tough times, ensuring that you’re meeting expectations in terms of results and providing relevant information, support and loyalty. Their best piece of advice is that you need to understand your boss’s strength and weaknesses, preferences and foibles. How do they like to work? How do they like to receive information? How do they make decisions? Does your Chair need briefing before the Board meeting or do they just wing it? Does the CEO love or hate meetings?  Hudson (2009) suggests that you also need to understand the broader context in which they are working and to find ways of using their skills to help you with your tasks. Your leader is going to expect what you expect from your staff: collaboration and initiative, being proactive and offering solutions to problems. Bossidy (2007) also recommends the importance of staying current and continuing to learn. 

There’s no guarantee that you will always have a good manager or a good leader. Adirondack (2005) has a great approach to management in the non-profit sector. She talks about ‘good enough management’ and provides a range of advice on dealing with ‘not-yet-good enough management’. It may be incompetent management. But it can also be about lack of direction form the Board, or poor processes such as badly run meetings, or unclear objective or expectations, or lack of good financial management. You can help provide advice and ideas to improve these scenarios even when you’re not the boss.

One of the regular whinges from my arts management students is about bosses who micromanage them. I’m lucky enough to have avoided such a relationship (to date) so for their sake, I went looking for some advice. Gallo (2013b) provides some useful strategies. The starting point is that it’s more likely to be about your bosses insecurities than it is about your competence.  And some micromanagement might be good for you. You may simply have a manager with very high standards who pays a great deal of attention to detail. Whilst they are exerting a degree of control, you can probably learn from them. 

However, what students are generally talking about are the bosses who give you little independence, are obsessive about what you’re doing every minute of the day, don’t let you make decisions and seem incapable of focusing on the bigger picture. Gallo’s (2013b) advice is not to fight it but rather to try and understand what’s behind it – is it fear of failure, pressure, company culture, the only way they know how to be a boss? Understanding will help sort out which strategy is best to use to deal with it including  trying to earn your boss’s trust, making up-front agreements about their level of involvement in your work and providing regular and detailed updates about your  progress. 

The other boss that regularly gets a mention is the one that’s simply incompetent – whether it’s because they can’t make a decision or because they play politics (or World of Warcraft) instead of doing work, or because they are focussed on their career not on helping you. Gallo (2013a) also offers insight on how to deal with this problem. Once again, it’s about trying to understand what causes it, asking others for help, finding creative ways of collaborating with them and stepping up and taking on responsibilities and decisions if they can’t or won’t. Her final point is the most important – take care of yourself.  If you find yourself with a manager that isn’t good enough, you can and should take it up with someone higher up, formally or informally, if that’s possible. As Adirondack (2005) suggests, you can do it in the spirit of asking for advice and guidance rather than complain.

But what if you feel that the relationship is all one way? That the management is not just ‘not yet good enough’ but actually bad. You’re doing their work for them; they take all your ideas and don’t give you credit; you can’t trust them; they can’t made a decision – or make bad decisions. You may decide to stay on and put up with a poor relationship because you love the organisation and hope that they will leave soon. But it’s important to remember that you won’t be able to make significant differences in how they think or operate (Hill & Lineback 2013). So you may have to do what I’ve done in the past and decide that working for such people is ultimately so demeaning and disappointing that it’s not worth staying. It’s traumatic and scary to leave but it’s better than working for a bad manager even in a good company.


Adirondack, S. (2005): Just About Managing? 4th edn, London Voluntary Service Council, London.

Bossidy, L. (2007): What your leader expects from you – and what you should expect in return, Harvard Business Review, April, 58–65.

Gabarro, JJ. & Kotter, JP. (2005): Managing Your Boss, Harvard Business Review, January, 92–99.

Gallo, A. (2013a): Dealing with your incompetent boss, in: HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, 55–59.

Gallo, A. (2013b): Stop Being Micromanaged, in: HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, 47–59.

Hill, LA. & Lineback, K. (2013): Managing your boss, in: HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, 3–16.

Hudson, M. (2009): Managing without profit. Leadership, management and governance of third sector organisations in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Management Topic: Organisation & Leadership
Cultural Area: General
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Dec 21, 2016