Enrich Your Job By Leading Upward< < Back to
As an executive coach, I’ve noticed that, while leadership styles vary considerably, the best leaders have attributes in common. For example, they all tend to have integrity, strong value systems and a genuine desire to do the right thing.
The leaders I most admire are consistently willing to step forward and serve, even if a task is menial or unlikely to lead to recognition. And their influence over other people extends in all directions. In other words, not only are they adept at managing their direct reports, but also they are able to guide other colleagues and collaborators.
Some of the strongest leaders exercise a special skill. They are able to lead upward, influencing their bosses to make better decisions and become more effective. For example, there’s a client I’ll call “Sam,” who didn’t expect to rise beyond his role as the VP of communications. He had five years until retirement, and he wanted during that time to contribute even more to the company he loved.
Without telling anybody, Sam adopted the goal of thoroughly supporting and even mentoring the young CEO, Joe. Because of his job, Sam had a good, comprehensive view of the company’s activities and customer relationships. And he made an effort to listen to colleagues and stakeholders at every level. Sam gathered and sorted feedback and data, and relayed it in a positive, effective way to the Joe. Being well informed, and having Sam as a sounding board, helped Joe to grow quickly into his job. And his mission of fully supporting Joe made Sam’s last years of work more interesting and rewarding.
In my own corporate career, the boss who taught me most about leadership was a humble guy named Dave Weatherwax. During his decade as senior VP and general counsel of a large company, Dave remained modest and never seemed to seek the limelight. And yet he exercised great influence, often quietly guiding the rest of the C-Suite.
During my first year with the company, I watched Dave carefully, trying to learn from his low-key but effective approach to management. Finally the day came when a colleague and I met with Dave to pitch a major initiative, asking his support for a public policy campaign we thought might be outside his comfort zone. In making our case, I raised every argument I could think of, carefully framing my points to reflect Dave’s goals, interests and possible concerns.
Dave listened intently, then to our surprise he approved the proposal on the spot. His only change was to specify a budget much bigger than the one we’d requested. We were almost giddy with success as we left his office. Then he stuck his head out his door and called us back. He said, “I just want you know that I saw what you were doing. But I don’t mind being led, if it’s done really well.”
Dave let us know that upward management can benefit everyone, but it must be implemented in the right way. Here are strategies to consider, if you want become better at leading up:
• Unselfish goals are critical. Leading upward is not the same thing as trying to manipulate the situation so you look good or somehow score a win. “Leading” is about offering proposals, guidance and support that serve the interests of the organization. When you step in to lead your boss, your intent should be to remain relatively invisible, as you give the enterprise a helpful nudge. Part of Dave’s leadership strength was his authentic humility. He had no interest in self-aggrandizement, but sincerely cared about serving the greater good.
• Understand what your bosses need. If you want to influence and assist the people above you, you must have a good sense of their goals and responsibilities. Develop a vision of how success will look from their perspective. Consider the organization’s mission, current strategy and primary challenges, and understand what your bosses are trying to accomplish.
• Maintain your areas of expertise. One reason for Dave’s considerable influence was that everybody respected his judgment as a lawyer. He capably managed a large staff of attorneys, and was recognized as the ultimate legal expert. A good way to maximize your influence is to develop an area where you are recognized as the authority. Find a niche where you can excel, and bring value to the enterprise by remaining current and by continuing to build your special skills and knowledge.
• Be gracious in managing credit and blame. Dave understood that credit is a vast resource to be spread around, not hoarded. He worked hard to make his boss, the CEO, look good. And when things were going well in his area, he called upon his team to step forward and be thanked for the good work. While Dave was lavish in sharing credit, he didn’t indulge in spreading blame. When problems arose, he took responsibility. When someone made a mistake, he typically examined the situation in a lawyer-like way, then turned immediately to finding solutions.
• Report without drama. Your boss is more likely to rely on you if she can count on you to report the facts in a simple straightforward way. Create a strong network for gathering information, and build your credibility by telling the truth without indulging in gossip, exaggeration or negative commentary. It makes sense to be tactful, but you won’t be acting like a leader if you only tell your boss what she wants to hear.
• Be organized. Your bosses’ time is limited, and one way you can assist them is by making sure that none of it is wasted. When you meet with them, be timely, stick with an agenda, and don’t talk any longer than necessary. Look for opportunities to help your bosses keep things moving smoothly, and find ways to save them from unnecessary stress.
A good approach for improving your upward management skills is to look around to see who is good at leading in all directions. Look to see who is successful, and learn from the way they do it. And, if you already head a team, watch for times when one of the members is particularly skillful at managing you. Notice whether they are good at leading up because they save you time, provide you with something you need, or make you feel good.
For more ways to communicate more effectively with your higher-ups, read: What if your boss won’t listen?
Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.