The Advancing Leadership Blog

What CEOs need from key executives: Leading Up

The term ‘Managing Up’ is sometimes used to describe the process of learning to effectively work with senior executives in an organization. In 2003, Michael Useem, a professor at the Wharton Business School, adapted this term to leadership, using it in his book Leading Up: How to Lead your Boss So You Both Win, where he writes:

“Leading Up is the act of working with people above you – whether one boss, several bosses, a chief executive, a board of directors or even stockholders – to help them and you get a better job done. Organizations need more overall direction from below to think strategically, communicate persuasively and act decisively.”

Leaders and managers have always been required to lead both up and down, but it is more important today than ever before. As organizations decentralize, supervisors and managers must recognize that they must learn how to provide their bosses with input that helps them achieve their organizational and personal goals.

Useem believes that virtually any organization can benefit from more upward leadership. Everyone knows an executive, director, political leader or religious figure who could have been more effective had they only been given direction or assistance by the people for whom they were responsible.

Leading Up Versus Managing Up

Leading Up is more difficult than just Managing Up. Keeping your boss informed about what you are hearing from your customers is an example of Managing Up. Leading Up, by contrast, might involve offering your boss a strategic insight or plan that could open up a new way of generating revenue or forming a deeper bond between the customer and the company. Or, if your boss is falling short in conveying his or her vision for the firm, Leading Up might require that you coach your boss to help him or her find more effective ways for getting the message out.

Leading Up doesn’t mean trying to ingratiate yourself with your superiors, being a fault-finder who criticizes people or undermining someone’s authority. Instead, it is an “affirmative calling” to help a boss accomplish the organization’s objectives. The premise is that superiors need leadership assistance from their subordinates.

Useem says almost anyone in an organization can Lead Up if the company encourages it. He believes that if you’re a senior manager, you should want all the help you can get from the ranks below. Markets today are far too complex for any one person to see it all. Companies need to develop a culture that helps employees understand that senior leaders want upward feedback. It is important to recognize that subordinates can provide effective coaching and assisting, as well as strategic insights.

An interesting example of Leading Up is seen in the US Marine Corps, where rank is highly delineated and prized. The concept of affirmative calling, on the contrary, has also been embraced. When marine officers plan a military action, they are trained to ask their juniors to speak up about what they think may be fatal flaws in the plan. As a result, the lower ranks come to appreciate that the leaders really do value their insights.

Ten Tips for Leading Up

To Lead Up effectively, it is wise to remember the following 10 points:

  • Understand how your organization really makes money:
    Get clear on business models and help those who report to you, understand them as well. Being thorough is not just understanding financials; it is also knowing what your customers are buying, why they buy from your company, where the company makes the best margin, and understanding how information flows through the company.
  • Pay attention to the markets that your company targets:
    Read your industry journals, work to better understand the political, economic, social and technological (PEST) environments your company operates in.
  • Watch the competition: Know your current competitive landscape. Review competitor’s websites from time to time, track mentions on the Internet and monitor related newsgroups.
  • Become a futurist: Develop a perspective on what is happening with economy and the world. Explore and get familiar with the new technologies that might impact your company. Think about how the company must adapt to thrive into the future.
  • Develop your people: Help them understand the bigger picture and encourage them to learn about more about the company, its markets and the bigger picture. Make their growth and development a priority.
  • Accept your boss’ personal characteristics: Like you, bosses are human with their own flaws, insecurities and idiosyncrasies. If there is something about your superior’s personality that can be annoying, you have a choice to accept it or to go elsewhere.
  • Understand your boss’ goals and objectives: Work to help your boss meet his/her goals. Always treat their time with respect, try to anticipate their needs, recognize and work to fill-in for their blind spots.
  • When an opportunity presents itself, turn the conversation with your boss in a strategic direction:
    You will have to be on the lookout for the best time to do this. Perhaps when you are travelling somewhere together or having a meal. Start a strategic conversation with questions. Ask the boss what he or she thinks of an industry trend that you have read about. Or ask, if they noted that XYZ competitor seems to be moving into a new market space.
  • Always be learning (ABL): Make your own growth and development a priority. Take courses, read widely, go to trade shows, etc. Make sure that some of your reading keeps you up to speed on the current management thinking. Soundview Book Summaries are a great way to stay on top of many of the major trends going on in the management/leadership discourse.
  • Always Be Listening (ABL-II): Make becoming a better leader a priority. Leadership is about relationships and influence. And one of the fastest ways to connect with anyone is to really listen to them. In your own experience, how often do you feel that you are really being heard? Then think about how it feels when someone really does listen.

As companies and their employees look to proactively transform into leading twenty-first century organizations, Useem’s theory of Leading Up is a simple and very useful tool to implement into daily operations. Lower ranking employees who lend insight and work collaboratively with the company’s leaders can result in thinking more strategically, communicating persuasively and acting decisively.

Peter Buchanan is a TEC Canada Best Practice Chair in the Toronto Region. He works with people who can make a difference in our community and in our world. You can learn more about Peter on the TEC Canada website >

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