One of my Inc. readers writes: "Our office is challenged because [our VP] shows up once a month for a few days, then disappears. He doesn't follow up and he doesn't communicate well. It's incredibly frustrating. Anything you can say or send me that could help is greatly appreciated."
This is a problem that I've heard countless times: When your boss's behavior or performance just isn't cutting it, which affects everyone down the line. What do you do?
Here's the advice I gave her and the answer to her question: You lead up.
This is a leader who leads his or her boss through influence, and never through being the boss of your boss.
Some questions for you.
I asked my reader the same questions I'm now asking you:
To what degree do you currently have an opportunity to lead up--to influence your founder, manager, VP, CEO? What are the challenges? Is it difficult to do?
If anyone is bothered by this idea, and having images of awkward conversations about telling your boss what to do, let me smooth your fears. Leading up is not upward delegation or manipulation of some sort to try to get something from them.
What "leading up" is really all about (and 8 ways to do it well).
Leading up is a very beneficial practice for both parties involved. Most leaders want to lead, not be led. But most leaders also want to have value added to them. If you take the approach of wanting to add value to those above you on the org. chart, you have the best chance of influencing them.
So in what ways can you add value to your boss? Here are 8 smart, emotionally-intelligent, ways of doing it.
1. Embrace the idea that one of your key roles is to make your leader wildly successful.
Some will look at this and say that looks like kissing up to them. On the contrary, I think it's very wise. It would be foolish not to look for every opportunity to help him or her be more successful.
2. Lighten their load.
Now you think I'm a few cards short of a full deck, but try this: Find out what your boss doesn't do well and find a way to get it away from him or her. Help your executive boss get comfortable delegating that work. It adds value! You can also find out what your boss loves to do but doesn't do well, and try to get that away from him or her too. By adding this kind of value, and doing it with a heart-intention, tensions will ease and things will begin to shift.
3. Build credibility.
One of the key tenets of exceptional leadership (leading down) is the ability to set clear expectations for your teams. But this is a two-way street. Don't forget to find out what your executive or management boss expects of you and be sure to get those things done with excellence. If you want to lead up, you need to have personal credibility with your leader.
4. Invest in the relationship.
People won't go along with you if they can't get along with you. So connect with your bosses. And don't wait for them to initiate that chemistry. Make the first move and reach out. And be a champion of what your boss desires. That, in itself, shows leadership.
5. Be a master of the right approach.
When you can make the right move at the right time with the right motive, you're leading up. This requires the crafty skill of feeling out the atmosphere, reading your boss's mood well, and knowing when to push and when to back off.
6. Show curiosity and the willingness to learn.
Smart people invite opportunities to learn from others, especially their bosses. You do that by being curious about them and their journey, listening more than you speak, asking for honest feedback to accelerate your learning, and showing the courage and humility to accept whatever comes your way instead of getting defensive. By making yourself the "student to the master," you endear yourself to your leader.
7. Be a trusted advisor.
Like any busy boss with a million things to think about, yours may have the human tendency to get laser focused on what's in front of them and miss picking up things on the radar screen. Have foresight to point out opportunities to pursue or obstacles to avoid. Offer wise counsel, and ask good questions to expand their thinking. And if you present a new problem, come with potential solutions and involve yourself in the action planning.
8. Use persuasion to sell your ideas.
This can only happen after the last two pointers above are firmly in place. It's hard to persuade someone who doesn't know you or trust you. So this might involve offering your VP a new strategy or insight that could improve an outcome. But the key is in your approach. One of the best arguments for persuading decision makers to change direction is to show the value of a great idea. So your approach should always be to present your ideas as possibilities. Then watch their faces light up...
Next step: Which of these ideas could you start putting into practice today?