• Advice

"Managing up" as a freelancer – it's not just for staff

If you’re a member of the corporate world, you’ve frequently encountered the catch phrase “managing up.” Books have been written on it, seminars have addressed it, and corporate training programs have empowered managers to apply its principles.

But you don’t need a subscription to the Harvard Business Review to understand the techniques that have helped employees galvanize effective relationships with their bosses and supervisors. “Managing up” need not be obsequious or contrived. It utilizes clear communication, a dedication to partnership, and an interest in successful results.

To put it simply, “managing up” is a deliberate effort on the part of an employee to forge the best possible partnership between himself and his boss, with the ultimate intent of producing innovative and high performance results for the company.

But hold on, you don’t consider yourself an “employee” so to speak. You are an elite member of the freelance swashbuckling club, uninhibited by the oppressive doldrums of company politics and unconcerned with climbing the corporate ladder.

Perhaps you toil away in your home studio, office, or kitchen table creating what you love with the tools of your choice. You gladly work on-site in the client’s office to make them happy and confident in your skills. You say: “I work for myself, and as long as I get paid, who cares what happens after that? I don’t WANT to manage up, that’s why I FREELANCE!”

I’m sure there are superstars in our industry who are so popular, talented and in-demand that they may never even consider the client relationship that seriously. They command large sums of money and get so much work they turn assignments away. If you're one of those artists, I admire your talent and skills.

If you're not one of those artists, listen up: The reality is you can’t be successful unless you are helping your clients be successful. Remember you are carving your own legacy with each assignment.

That's where managing up comes in. If you want your freelance business to flourish, make yourself an integral part of your client’s success by managing up.

Managing up is essential, even if your projects last one day, one week or one month. And it’s easier than you think. The techniques are unobtrusive and effective at scoring home-runs with clients. I believe it's what keeps me first-in-line for future projects.

Take the bull by the horns: 5 practices for freelancers to “manage up”

Getting to Yes: Alignment

The first thing you want when starting an assignment, be it remote or on-site, is to get into alignment with your client.

It’s not effective to sit down, follow instructions and think you’re doing your best. Even though you are an autonomous freelancer you must be briefly informed of the project history and details of the intended outcome.

Are they presenting to an internal or external client? Is the concept already sold and merely needs to be fleshed out for group discussion? Or are they risking their last dime on this presentation to gain the new contract?

Part of “managing up” is getting clear on what you’re asked to deliver and why. The more you know the better you can proceed.


After you and your client are in alignment on what the desired goals are, you must agree on “when” to get there.

Are you working the whole day? Lunch? Coffee breaks? Need to stop at a certain time so you can make your kids evening drama production?

Communicate times and involvement up-front. Not only will you focus better, you’ll be uninhibited by questions and do your best work.

Agree on “how” you will submit roughs and final frames for review. Can you reach the client via email, or stroll over to their desk? Are they in meetings all day? Do they prefer you send a PDF, which they can quietly review on their tablet during their weekly staff meeting? Would they rather discuss progress at your workstation? Either way, they’ll be happy if you make it convenient for them.

Other details relate to the “what” that you will create - that is, what formats and styles? Are you drawing digitally or hand drawn frames on paper? Black and white? Color? Line? High fidelity refined frames or low-fidelity loose images? Maybe they have a visual target you can reference?

Since you both agree “when” to deliver, “how” to get there and “what” it should look like, forge ahead. Together, you can make adjustments as needed.


Things can change rapidly on an assignment. You may start to feel stressed and taken advantage of. But hold on - you’re the expert! They hired you to assist them in achieving greatness. There’s no need to feel manipulated or pressured beyond what you can achieve.

If they really need everything earlier and you want to accommodate them, suggest what you CAN deliver.

How you handle changes in direction or deadlines makes all the difference. Communication is important every step of the way. Never take for granted that a client knows what you’re thinking.

Constant communication and evaluation of progress is vital for client success and satisfaction. When details and plans change, remain poised. “Managing up” is a sign of professionalism and uses deliberate action to get results.


Building trust with your client is key – and it’s pretty easy! All you have to do is do exactly what you say you’ll do. The greatest compliment a freelancer can receive is when a client leaves them alone. They go to lunch or meetings knowing you’re on the job because you’ve won their confidence.

When employers find someone who is great at their job and a pleasure to work with, they will love having you around. Since you aren’t subject to the same jaded outlooks many staffers are infected with, your enthusiasm makes you a perfect candidate to tackle a problematic or difficult job.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

After following the above practices and handing in the deliverables, take a minute to see if the client is happy. You may have to wait until after their presentation to find out. Usually, you can gauge their satisfaction by how relieved they are once completed.

Since you partnered methodically with them and received their blessings every step of the way, they’ll remember how instrumental you were for a smooth production and how you inspired confidence for the project.

In the odd case the client is not happy with what you’ve provided, express regrets and ask what you can do to make them happy. You also want to know where things went wrong. At what point did both of you not align in the process? Walking through it step-by-step allows the client to revisit the decisions they made, suggesting a constructive review both parties can learn from.

Wrap it Up

After ending on a good note, mention that you would love to work with them again. Perhaps they can refer you to other potential customers. Also, it’s perfectly fine to ask for a testimonial that you can share on your web site or linked-in.

They may not have the time or patience to put one together no matter how much they liked your performance, but assure them you only need one or two sentences. With that amount of brevity, their comments will get right to the point. If they are slow to get back to you, be patient. They just had a great experience, let’s keep it that way. You can always circle back when the time is right.

I hope these points on “managing up” as a freelancer are helpful. It may seem common sense, but many times we can forget to employ such basic principles. As your talent gives you entrée to seek freelance work, “managing up” is the method you use to secure a foothold. Get into Alignment. Agree on “how,” “what,” “when” and “where.” Adjust the plan as needed. Finally, build Trust between you and your clients. You’ll be delivering the highest level of Satisfaction their money can buy.

Tony Santo Tony is an award-winning storyboard artist and art director in the advertising, entertainment and animation industries. Tony is also an instructor for the Canson Education and Outreach program.

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