Most of us are well aware of how much of an impact a manager’s style and approach have on their direct report — and the wider organization too. After all, as the saying goes, “People don’t quit bad companies, they quit bad bosses.”
It is true, of course, that managers have a vital role to play in leading productive, engaged, and enthusiastic teams. However, significantly less attention is given to the relationship in the opposite direction.
This is an unfortunate oversight because almost all of us will find ourselves leading up at one point or another in our careers. Doing so with skill and sensitivity can have a noticeable effect on our career progression, as well as the success of the companies we work for.
Often, the concept of leading up is only discussed in the context of bad managers. When those above us are failing to lead properly, we may find ourselves in the awkward position of picking up their slack — a situation that can be tricky to navigate.
But we do both managers and their reports a disservice when we take too narrow a view of what it means to lead upwards. This concept shouldn’t be limited to coping with a poor manager. Instead, we define it more broadly as any time when you need to influence someone higher up in the office hierarchy.
In many cases, the person you are influencing will be your own line manager. However, leading up isn’t limited to the line management relationship — you may well find yourself needing to convince, persuade, or cajole other senior staff members into agreeing to your ideas.
When you do it well, you will quickly find you earn the respect and admiration of decision-makers in your organization.
However, influencing people who are more senior than you is a delicate matter that requires care and thought. So, in this blog post, we are looking at the art of leading up in more detail.
We will explain the concept of leading up more fully and discuss why this tricky skill is such an important one to master in the workplace. Then, we will look at some of the tips you can uses to improve your ability to successfully manage upwards.
What Is Leading Up?
Leading up is the art of communicating and behaving with more senior colleagues in a way that influences their actions and decision-making.
Sometimes, you may be trying to persuade the person to support a new idea or initiative. Other times, you will need that person to take a specific action so that you can progress on your own work.
The need to lead up isn’t limited to those at the early stages of their careers. Managers also need to lead upward in order to influence those who are more senior than them. Even those at the very top of the office hierarchy may need to call on this skill from time to time when dealing with the board of directors or other senior stakeholders.
Unlike when managers give tasks or directions to those below them, you don’t have the luxury of being supported by the office hierarchy in situations when you are leading upward. This means you will need to approach it with sensitivity and diplomacy if you want to be successful.
Why Is It Important to Lead Up?
Bearing in mind that leading up isn’t always the simplest situation to navigate, why would you risk putting your head above the parapet in this way?
Well, the practical answer is that it is hard to avoid. Very few of us can navigate our entire careers without needing to influence a more senior colleague. If you want to get things done and feel valued and satisfied in your work, you will need to be able to persuade others that your approach is the right one.
However, pure practicality is far from the only reason that you should master the skill of managing upwards. The ability to do this well has huge advantages for both your personal career progression and the success of your team and company.
Firstly, as much as some seem to believe otherwise, no manager has all the answers. They need the input of their team to help them make informed decisions, solve problems, and come up with creative new ideas.
The best managers know this and will regularly invite their direct reports to have their say. But even the best managers sometimes need to be nudged in the right direction even when they haven’t asked for your input.
You will have access to information and insights that your manager might not. Leading up means proactively sharing that insight up the chain of command and not assuming your manager already knows or will ask at some point.
Doing so can add to the company’s success, while not speaking up could mean important information is missed. Refining your ability to lead up can help you maximize your impact on your company’s direction, even before you are officially in a leadership position.
Speaking of reaching a leadership role, those who effectively lead upwards are also those who are most likely to see career growth, as a study from McKinsey & Company shows.
The research analyzed survey data from over 1,200 marketing executives and found that the ability to manage upwards (and sideways) was twice as important for career success as the ability to manage subordinates. It was also 50% more important for the business’s success.
Being willing to take the risk of approaching more senior colleagues with ideas and solutions shows that you are engaged, proactive, and forward-thinking in your work. As long as you approach the situation with tact, leading upward can help you demonstrate your abilities to senior leaders and can establish you as someone worthy of further development and promotion.
Like many of the soft skills that help you get ahead in the workplace, the importance of leading up is often overlooked. But it is a valuable talent to develop, with benefits for both you and your team.
How to Lead Up Effectively
We’ve looked at the principle of leading up and discussed why you should make developing this skill a priority if you want to succeed in your career. But how does this work in practice? Can you really exert meaningful influence on those above you in the office hierarchy?
The answer is yes, you certainly can have a significant impact when you lead up successfully. But it all depends on taking the right approach. To help you do that, we’ve compiled this short list of strategies and tips.
1. Understand Their Leadership Style
We talk often about how understanding your own leadership style can help you develop as a leader. However, when you need to influence those above you, it can be just as vital to understand the leadership style of the person you are trying to influence.
If your manager naturally has a more collaborative or democratic style of leadership, they are likely to be fairly open to hearing your input. Indeed, they are probably already asking for it regularly. Coaching leaders too will usually provide opportunities for you to share thoughts and ideas.
However, not everyone leads in this way. Others may be less aware of the need to request your input and will rely more heavily on other sources of information when making decisions, such as data and insight, their own experience, or the established approaches used by the company.
If you know how your manager prefers to lead and have some idea of how they make decisions, you can use that information to tailor your approach to their style. For example, you are more likely to convince a data-focused leader to listen to you if you are backed up by plenty of facts and figures. On the other hand, a vision-focused leader will need to know how your suggestions affect the bigger picture.
2. Build Strong Relationships
Your relationship with your manager and other senior colleagues will make a huge difference to how willing they are to listen to you, so use every opportunity you can to build strong relationships with those higher up in the organization.
Yes, it will help if you find it easy to get along. But professional relationships don’t need to rely on personal liking to be strong and effective. If you can build trust by being courteous, reliable, and willing to listen to others, it will go a long way to making your relationships with senior colleagues positive and respectful.
In almost all cases, it will be worth spending some time on this relationship-building before you approach someone with ideas or suggestions for change.
3. Do Your Homework
When you want to make the case for a new approach or initiative, it helps to have done your homework. Before you present your idea to your manager, think about the problem you are trying to solve or how your idea supports the company’s strategy.
Gather data, if possible, to back up your approach. Show what the potential benefits are, what resources are needed, and what the cost might be. Senior colleagues will usually respond better if you can demonstrate that you have thought through the business implications and have evaluated the cost/risk versus the benefit.
At the same time, be prepared to acknowledge where you don’t have all the answers yet. Part of effectively leading up is being honest and clear in your communication with managers — an approach that will help you build trust.
4. Be Open
When you are feeling fired up about a great new idea or a fantastic solution to a company problem, it can be difficult to accept that not everyone will immediately be on board. However, if you enter a conversation with your manager rigidly fixed on a particular approach, you may find it difficult to get the results you want.
Instead, try to go in with an open mind. Expect that your manager will have questions and may suggest changes or raise objections to your plans. Instead of seeing these as personal criticisms, embrace them as opportunities to refine your ideas and adapt them to the company’s needs and resources.
Depending on your relationship with your manager, you could intentionally approach the first conversation as a brainstorming session. Go in with your idea and ask them to help you develop it. Find out what they need to know to support it and ask for their input in identifying and overcoming potential barriers.
Good managers will respond to the opportunity to act as a mentor and help you develop. But if you are unlucky and have a manager who isn’t interested in hearing your ideas, try to bring them around by asking questions that help them follow your thought process and (hopefully) come to the same conclusion.
Ultimately, the decision still lies with your manager, so you also need to be open to the idea that they might make a decision you disagree with. As long as everyone involved has approached the conversation with respect and empathy, you can likely move on and still be successful next time around.
5. Communicate with Respect
As we are talking about respect, it is a good moment to think about how to approach your more senior colleagues.
The more you can keep your approach courteous and respectful, the better. Even if you think you have identified something that your manager has missed, be generous and empathetic in how you approach it with them. Focus on solutions and stay well away from any personal accusations. People who feel personally attacked go on the defensive and are unlikely to listen to the rest of what you have to say.
Being respectful doesn’t mean you need to be indirect or subservient in your approach. You can still state your case with clarity and honesty. Just focus on the business case and not the personalities involved.
It will also help to protect your workplace relationships if you respect the office hierarchy when leading up. If you need to influence a senior colleague who is not your direct line manager, it is usually best to speak to your own manager first to make sure they are up to speed and don’t feel that you have gone over their head.
With any luck, your manager will be supportive and can help you think about how to approach your colleague in the best way to get the result you want.
Leading up is a delicate skill to master, but it is one that is worth putting some effort into. Done well, leading up helps you increase your impact on your team’s work, benefitting both your company and your own career.