Learning to influence the leader you report to is a critical skill to learn. When you are able to communicate, influence and lead with your leader, you can create both a culture and momentum that can truly serve your mission. One of the things I value as a leader is the privilege of being able to influence what the organisation is doing and also how it is doing it. Leading up is just that. Leading with your leader for the benefit of the organisation. Being courageous and proactive so that you get the best from your leader and you give your best to the organisation.
As leaders, learning to lead up is essential. Here are five steps to doing it well.
Exhaust YOUR leadership options before involving the leader above you.
Unless it’s an emergency or a matter of either culture or policy that requires you to alert the right people, then I expect all my leaders to try everything they can before involving me. As the key leader, I need all my leaders to lead. To be courageous in the face of conflict, to step up and clearly communicate and protect our culture. To take the opportunity to be grateful, to share a vision, to give context to the importance of the work that is being done. TO solve problems, to take full responsibility. Then and only then, invite the key leader into the mix. That way you position your leader to be the most helpful at the best time. You place them in a partnership role and leverage their skill set on behalf of your problem.
The conversation you don’t want to have, is the one where your leaders asks, “What you have done to solve this issue?” and you are found wanting. Be the one that invites your leader in as the partner and the playmaker. That’s good use of their time and capabilities.
Choosing Your Timing Wisely.
Timing is so important when you are leading up. One of the things most important loads a team leader carries is the detail of the work being done. Sure, the key leader is always ultimately responsible and they delegate that to you. Carry the detail, carry the mental load, carry the communication, the momentum, the highs and the lows. And choose your timing to involve your leader wisely. You will get the best result that way. The timing of the conversation is as important as the content.
When you need to involve the leader above you it always helps to ask:
- “When would be a good time to talk about X?”
- “What’s the best way to ask you for some feedback/help/advice on X?”
- “Is there a good time to touch base with you about X?”
That way you give your leader the best chance to give you the best time to have the conversation. Sometimes it’s right away, other times the conversation is set for a more strategic or private time. When you get the timing right you get the best from your leader.
Communicate important information beforehand and make sure there are no surprises (especially bad news).
One of the more discouraging experiences in leadership is finding out bad news at the wrong time. Or to find out things for the very first time in the wrong environment. As a team member, I urge you to avoid this at all costs, please. Remember the time that bad news tumbled out, and it was the first mention of it to your leader? Awkward much? Be a team member with the courage to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!
If you are the key leader in your organisation you MUST create a culture where problems, bad news and challenges can be freely communicated and aired. Your team needs to believe they can tell you anything and you will be fully partnered with them to solve the issue. Make it easy for your team to say the hard stuff. This alone will create trust and confidence in your team.
Whatever your leader needs to know, needs to hear and needs to be across beforehand, you need to pull out all stops to let them know. Being forewarned as the key leader helps a great deal. Being across what’s happening, briefed on the events, updated on important matters, all set your leader up for a win. It also positions them as being aware of what’s going on at various levels of the organisation. This principle applies to good news as well. The more good news you tell the leader above you the better. It helps create confidence in your leadership as well as make recognising the progress and contribution of others much easier.
Come with solutions and an expect a rigorous leadership conversation.
In the team’s I am part of, I want strength of character and opinion while we sort out the best pathway forward. I expect the leaders around me to be able to handle push back, opinions, rigour, debate, all in order to get the best possible result. Fight for each other, not with each other.
When you communicate critical information early, set up the right time to meet, the attitude you bring to the meeting is one of both solution and opportunities. Again, this demonstrates carrying the load for your leader. You’re not leaving the weight of the matter to them and them alone. You’re leveraging their key skills and core responsibility in the organisation. Do not attend the meeting with the expectation of the work being placed elsewhere. That’s not the point; the point is utilising the skills of your leader to go further faster. Think of ways for this to be solved, ask for relevant advice and perspectives you might not have considered.
Ask for help. Clarify Next Steps. Report back on Progress.
The key mindset for leading up is one of partnership. Involve your leader early enough with the right amount of information so they can partner with you for the outcome you most need. In the process of partnering, make sure you ask for all the help you require; be afraid of nothing. Be fully responsible for your work and get complete clarity on who will do what by when.
When you know the next steps, take responsibility for execution. In short, get it done. Leaders in key roles have limited memory for the thing you have committed to do. Make it happen and let them know the progress. In my leadership roles, hearing back on progress helps my mental checklist. Hearing back that things have been done, are in the process of being done, or have been actioned, give me confidence that the team leader is across their role and I don’t need to be concerned. Reporting back isn’t because “I need to know” Reporting back is your best way of communicating the job is getting done.
Leading up is a critical skill. A problem to solve for some. A culture to develop for all. Ensure you have the conversation that creates the permission and the pathway to influence your leader for the good of the organisation.
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