Leading up: 5 ways to build this essential superpower

Jon Lokhorst, CPA, ACC | May 2018 Footnote

"Seriously, I need to lead my boss?" 

It wasn't the first time a client asked that question. Although most leadership advice focuses on leading downstream, most leaders lead from somewhere in the middle. Few people get to be at the top of their organization. Even then, most CEOs report to a board of directors or ownership group.

Leading up is the most counterintuitive form of leadership. Roles are reversed as the follower takes the lead over his or her superior. It's a difficult skill to master, but one that's essential to build an effective relationship with your boss and advance within your organization.

Here are five ways to develop your upward leadership skills.

1. Build unwavering trust.

Trust is paramount to productive working relationships. Your boss needs to trust you to keep your word and follow through on your commitments. Leave no doubt that he or she can count on you. That positions you for greater influence and opens a seat at the table for you to join higher-level discussions.

Always support and never undermine your superiors. It's easy to get caught up in negativity at the water cooler. Let's face it; all leaders have their flaws. But criticizing the boss around your co-workers eventually leaks out and erodes trust. It could even cost you a promotion down the road. If you can't steer the conversation to a more positive tone, move on to something else.

2. Master your craft.

Do your job well. You can't become a "go-to person" for your boss if he or she can't count on you to take care of your responsibilities. Master your craft by developing the core competencies essential to your job. Pursue training, coaching and mentoring to fill gaps between your current skill level and what you need to excel.

Complete your assignments on time and within budget. Be proactive in communicating when things start going off course. It's hard to secure the promotion you desire when you fail to meet deadlines, exceed budget or fail to communicate.

Make the decisions that are yours to make. Don't defer decisions to your boss unless truly necessary. If you get into that habit, your boss eventually feels like he or she is doing your work. It's almost impossible to advance if you can't make the decisions required at your level of responsibility. Seek clarity if you're unsure about decision-making authority; consider it practice in leading up.

Build your team. You have more responsibility to develop others as you advance professionally. Help your direct reports excel in their roles and prepare them for their next level. Strengthening your bench makes you more promotable, as your boss sees that others are ready to step up as you move up in the organization.

3. Adapt your communication style and preferences.

As a subordinate, it's up to you to learn your boss' communication style and adapt to his or her preferences. Does he or she prefer email to an in-person conversation? Or do they prefer an exchange of text messages to a phone call? One of my former bosses leveraged the voicemail system to leave messages for his team throughout the day.

Another question is how he or she prefers to receive information. How detail-oriented is your boss? Some bosses would rather have a high-level summary that cuts quickly to the bottom line. Others want the details to draw their own conclusions. One hospital CFO has his team provide a bullet point summary of each report, along with the full document so he can dive into the details for more information if necessary.

Finally, how does your boss prefer to receive bad news? Some bosses want the story behind it, as a way of warming up to the bad news. Others prefer to hear it straight up, without any sugarcoating or long explanation. If you're not sure about your boss, ask now. That will alleviate stress the next time you have to deliver bad news.

4. Advance your boss' agenda.

Seek clarity on your boss' top priorities and strive to execute on them. Those priorities likely relate to important initiatives that flow from higher levels within the organization. By helping move them forward, you gain credibility and visibility, not only with your boss but his or her peers and superiors as well. That in turn positions you for future advancement opportunities within the firm.

Find ways to take things off your boss' plate. When you lighten his or her load, it enables him or her to focus on other challenges. It also shows that you're capable of performing at a higher level of responsibility. Consider the ripple effect as you encourage the same with your direct reports. Leaders at each level can then devote more attention to strategic priorities that move the organization forward.

Partner with your boss in leading change. Research indicates that leaders' greatest stress comes from navigating change. Help your team understand the purpose of significant changes and the importance of supporting them. Use your influence to execute on those initiatives.

5. Be respectfully candid.

With all that said, it sounds like leading up means being a "yes man" or "yes woman." Not at all. There are times where leading up requires you to challenge your superiors. When that happens, be respectfully candid. Present your questions or concerns in a way that shows you respect your boss' position and authority.

The best leaders establish protocols for these situations. In one organization I served, we started hard conversations with the phrase, "Can I ask a clarifying question?" Another common introduction is, "Do I have permission to speak freely?" It's a respectful way to prepare your boss for a tough question or challenging discussion.

Be proactive and transparent. Don't hide important information or bad news. Chances are that will come back to haunt you later. Instead, gather the facts and present your findings. Whenever possible, bring recommendations or possible solutions to the table.

Offer feedback to help your boss improve (humbly and diplomatically, of course). Helping your boss discover his or her blind spots is a gift. Everyone wins when the leader gets better. Here's where building a high trust relationship pays big dividends.

It takes courage to lead up.

Consider leading up a fiduciary duty. Are you ready to practice? In "Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win," author Michael Useem writes, "Leading up requires great courage and determination. We might fear how our superior will respond, we might doubt our right to lead up, but we carry a responsibility to do what we can when it will make a difference."

Jon Lokhorst, CPA, ACC, is a leadership coach and consultant, partnering with CPAs, CFOs and other leaders who face massive change in their industry and recognize the need for a new leadership model to navigate those challenges. You may reach him at jon@lokhorstconsulting.com.