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6 Ways to Lead Upward at Work

Making your boss look good can help your career. Here's how.

By Beverly Jones | July 23, 2014
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Beverly Jones is a leadership and transitions coach who runs Clearways Consulting in Washington, D.C., and Rappahannock County, Va. She was formerly a lawyer representing energy clients, universities and nonprofits.

(The following article appeared previously on Clearwaysconsulting.com.)

As an executive coach, I’ve noticed that some of the strongest leaders exercise a special skill: They are able to lead upward, influencing their bosses to make better decisions and become more effective.

You should do this, too, and I’ll show you six ways how shortly.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by leading upward. I have a client I’ll call “Sam,” who didn’t expect to rise beyond his role as the VP of communications. He had five years until retirement and wanted, during that time, to contribute even more to the company he loved. Without telling anybody, Sam adopted the goal of thoroughly supporting and even mentoring the young CEO, Joe. 

(MORE: Unconventional Career Advice)

Becoming a Sounding Board

Because of his job, Sam had a comprehensive view of the company’s activities and customer relationships. And he made an effort to listen to colleagues and stakeholders at every level. So Sam gathered and sorted feedback and data and relayed it in a positive, effective way to Joe. 

Being well informed, and having Sam as a sounding board, helped Joe grow quickly into his job. And Sam’s mission of fully supporting the big boss made his last years of work more interesting and rewarding.

Who Taught Me Most About Leadership

In my own corporate career, the boss who taught me most about leadership was a humble guy named Dave Weatherwax, a senior VP and general counsel of a large company. Dave never seemed to seek the limelight and yet he exercised great influence, often quietly guiding the rest of the C-Suite.

One day, a colleague and I met with Dave to pitch a major initiative, asking his support for a public policy campaign we thought might be outside his comfort zone. In making our case, I raised every argument I could think of, carefully framing my points to reflect Dave’s goals, interests and possible concerns. Dave listened intently and then, to our surprise, approved the proposal; his only change was to specify a budget much bigger than the one we’d requested. 

(MORE: How to Prove Your Value at Work)

We were almost giddy with success as we left his office. Then he stuck his head out his door and called us back. He said, “I just want you know that I saw what you were doing. But I don’t mind being led, if it’s done really well.”

Dave let us know that upward management can benefit everyone, but it must be implemented in the right way. 

6 Ways to Lead Upward at Work

Here are six strategies to consider if you want become better at leading upward:

1. Have unselfish goals. Leading upward is not the same thing as trying to manipulate the situation so you look good or somehow score a win. “Leading” is about offering proposals, guidance and support that serve the interests of the organization.

When you step in to lead your boss, your intent should be to remain relatively invisible, as you give the enterprise a helpful nudge. Part of Dave’s leadership strength was his authentic humility. He had no interest in self-aggrandizement, but sincerely cared about serving the greater good.

(MORE: Avoid Being Marginalized at Work)

2. Understand what your bosses need. If you want to influence and assist the people above you, you must have a good sense of their goals and responsibilities. 

Develop a vision of how success will look from their perspective. Consider the organization’s mission, current strategy and primary challenges and understand what your bosses are trying to accomplish.

3. Build areas of expertise. One reason for Dave’s considerable influence was that everybody respected his judgment as a lawyer. He capably managed a large staff of attorneys, and was recognized as the ultimate legal expert.

A good way to maximize your influence is to develop an area where you are recognized as the authority. Find a niche where you can excel, and bring value to the enterprise by remaining current and by continuing to build your special skills and knowledge.

4. Be gracious in managing credit and blame. Dave understood that credit is a vast resource to be spread around, not hoarded. He worked hard to make his boss, the CEO, look good. And when things were going well in his area, he called upon his team to step forward and be thanked for the good work. 

While Dave was lavish in sharing credit, he didn’t indulge in spreading blame. When problems arose, he took responsibility. When someone made a mistake, he typically examined the situation in a lawyer-like way, then turned immediately to finding solutions.

5. Report up without drama. Your boss is more likely to rely on you if she can count on you to report the facts in a simple straightforward way. 

Create a strong network for gathering information, and build your credibility by telling the truth without indulging in gossip, exaggeration or negative commentary. 

It makes sense to be tactful, but you won’t be acting like a leader if you only tell your boss what she wants to hear.

6. Be organized. Your bosses’ time is limited, and one way you can assist them is by making sure that none of it is wasted.

When you meet with them, be timely, stick with an agenda and don’t talk any longer than necessary. Look for opportunities to help your bosses keep things moving smoothly and find ways to save them from unnecessary stress.

A good approach for improving your upward management skills is to look around at work, find others who are good at leading in all directions and learn from the way they do it. 

If you already head a team, watch for times when one of the members is particularly skillful at managing you. Notice whether they are good at leading up because they save you time, provide you with something you need or make you feel good.

For more ways to communicate more effectively with your higher-ups, please read my post: What If Your Boss Won’t Listen?