There are very few leaders who don’t have a boss and sometimes it’s helpful to lead your boss as well as your team. Isn’t it a little presumptuous to think you can lead your boss? Not if you approach it as an effort to help you both succeed. You want your team to help you succeed, right? If you’re a good leader, you will seek out and carefully consider your team’s council. Shouldn’t you offer the same to your boss?
If your boss is a good leader, he or she will welcome your input. If he or she is challenged as a leader, they may need your help even more, but leading up will be a bit more difficult.
In Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up, John Baldoni offers three questions to consider when considering how to manage up. Examining these questions will help you determine how to help your boss succeed and that will help you and your team succeed as well.
What does the leader need? I once worked in an organization made up of several teams with specific technical responsibilities. Our leader had considerable expertise in all areas except the one my team was responsible for. It was obvious to my team and I that he was uncomfortable with his lack of knowledge and that we could best help him by taking the time to explain details and fill in his knowledge. He didn’t want to micro-manage my team, but he did need to be comfortable understanding what we were doing.
What does the team need? In this case, the team also needed the boss to be more knowledgeable about our area of responsibility. He represented us to the most senior levels and if he wasn’t comfortable with his knowledge, he could not effectively advocate for us. We would be more successful when he was more knowledgeable.
What can I do to help the leader and the team succeed? I have always appreciated it when team members come to me with suggestions, offers of assistance, and even complaints and critiques. I know that when I’m receptive, lines of communication are improved and the whole team benefits. That doesn’t mean I accept every change that is suggested. On the other hand, I have worked for bosses who are not as receptive. Some even saw any such attempt as a threat to their position. Remember, your goal is not to fix the boss or take over that position, but to help everyone succeed. Make the effort to get to know the boss and their level of tolerance for help.
Good leaders appreciate honest feedback from their team and good subordinate leaders know how to provide it. That means understanding the boss’s expectations and learning when they are most and least approachable. (That’s why we believe so strongly in leaders writing out their leadership philosophy.) Then, adjust your approach accordingly.
Remember that you won’t always win. A diplomatic and subtle approach is best. Your boss still has the ultimate responsibility and you must respect that.
Besides, it isn’t about you winning; it’s about what you can do to help your team and the organization win.