By MG John Gronski (USA, Ret)
“Leading up does not mean trying to ingratiate yourself with your superiors, being a nagging fault-finder who criticizes people or undermining someone’s authority. Instead, leading up is an “affirmative calling” to help a boss accomplish what everyone and the organization wants or needs to accomplish.” Michael Useem, Wharton
Lately, when I have been conducting leadership workshops, I have been getting many questions from participants about techniques they can use to “lead up”. Leading up is not about subordinate leaders undermining their bosses. Rather it is about how leaders at all levels could work with and advise their bosses to achieve greater organizational effectiveness.
Good leaders set an environment where subordinate leaders are empowered to express their ideas and recommendations. Well-functioning organizations like that allow input from everyone on the team. Leading up is still necessary for high-functioning organizations where leaders encourage input. It is also easier to do in these organizations, but it still takes diplomacy and relationship management skills.
Not every leader creates an environment where lower-level leaders feel comfortable leading up. It is in organizations like this where leading up is probably needed most. It is difficult for most people to lead up in such an environment. In environments like this, leading up takes a fair amount of personal courage and emotional intelligence depending on the personality of your boss. In environments like this, one must lead up with finesse since obstacles and minefields abound.
Techniques For Leading Up
Here are some techniques mid-level leaders can use to lead up and positively influence outcomes within the organizations they are part of.
1. Be Respectful
Be respectful to your boss. Being that the leader you are “leading up” to is in a position of higher authority than you, it stands to reason they probably have more going on and more things on their mind. They are probably able to see things you may not have the opportunity to see, and they probably are dealing with more information.
Understand the right time to engage your boss. Timing is everything. When your boss is crazy busy putting out fires, that is not the time to engage in a lengthy conversation. Being respectful of your boss’s position is key. Do not come across as arrogant, condescending, or a know-it-all.
2. Ask questions
If your boss is not pushing the information to you that you need to do your job well then you must find ways to pull that information from your boss. Mid-level leaders who are not getting the direction or guidance they need must ask questions. Seek to understand what your boss sees as the long-term goal. Understand how he or she defines success.
Seek to gain an understanding of why your boss is making certain decisions. Another good technique is to brief back your boss on what you believe his or her guidance is, even if you have not received it. Some bosses are not explicit in the guidance they provide but rather are implicit. It is times like that when you must confirm with your boss what you believe he or she is implying.
A good technique when confirming tasks with your boss is to use what, when, why, and how. Explain to your boss what you believe you are being tasked to do, when it must be completed by, why you are doing the task, and how you intend to accomplish the task. That is a great way to head off any miscommunication that might otherwise occur, especially if your boss does not communicate well.
3. Demonstrate results and keep your boss informed
Let your boss know about the results you are having. As you use best practices inform your boss what you are doing and why you are doing it. Be prepared to concisely explain the tools, techniques, methods, and processes you are using. When you are achieving the desired organizational results, your boss may be inclined to copy some of the tools and techniques you are using, and this can be key to improving the overall organization.
4. Make recommendations
Leaders who continue to learn and grow come across many valuable resources such as articles, books, and podcasts. Share these things with your boss. If you believe your boss is not taking the time to read or listen to what you send, provide a cliff notes version through concise written or oral communication.
When you return from a workshop or conference it is an ideal time to share what you learned with your boss. Provide a short version of the information but also provide web links or sources for more information if your boss would like to learn more. The bottom line is that you will want to expose your boss to new ways to think about how they have been leading.
5. Make suggestions
Today’s work environments are complex and dynamic. There are not too many leaders who have seen it all and have all the answers. That is the purpose of a diverse team. Based on the different backgrounds, experiences, and training found in diverse teams it is more likely team members can present options on how to solve challenges. When you have something valuable to propose take the opportunity to speak up.
As a cautionary note, we must understand that there are some leaders with whom you simply cannot use the techniques I outlined. That is because the leaders are so insecure, dysfunctional, or toxic that they will resent anyone who questions them or tries to help them improve. In situations like that, it is decision time. You must decide to either work with a dysfunctional boss who will not take any useful feedback or find another department or organization to work within.
MG John Gronski (USA, Ret.) is a leadership consultant, international speaker, and executive coach. He has led small teams and very large organizations. He earned an MBA from Penn State and attended leadership training at Harvard’s Kennedy School, the US Army War College, and the US Army’s prestigious Ranger School.