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Lead Your Boss: The subtle art of managing up!

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Lead Your Boss:

The Subtle Art of Managing Up

by John Baldoni

Book Review by Ron Cacioppe, Ange Titlestad, Travis Thomas

Managing your manager is a challenge for many people. Even if your boss is a competent leader and manager, it still takes a lot of skill to get your ideas listened to and to change the decisions, thoughts and behaviours of your manager.

If your manager lacks ability as a manager, is low in emotional intelligence or is domineering or a bully, it can make your work life awful and your company fail.

Sometimes your boss can be such a nice guy that s/he has trouble saying no or making tough decisions so the organisation flounders and loses its way and its customers.

Recent global financial problems showed a failure of leadership at all levels, but chiefly by those at the top who didn’t manage the change well. Now, more than ever, is the time for those in the lower levels of the organisation to use their initiative and skills to transform their organisations into ones that are responsive, nimble, and honest.

The business case for leading upwards is significant. A survey conducted in January 2007 from the consulting firm, Watson Wyatt, revealed that only 49% of employees have “trust and confidence” in their senior managers, and just 53% believed that senior management made “the right changes to stay competitive.” Worse, senior executives surveyed by Booz & Co. in December 2008 revealed that 46% doubted the ability of their CEOs’ to execute a recovery plan.

So a book that promises to provide all the ingredients needed to successfully manage upwards could be very useful and valuable. Almost everyone can learn to better manage their boss.

Lead Your Boss by John Baldoni addresses a lot of managerial lessons and is easy to read with a lot examples, including ones of very famous people. The title of the book is misleading because the author tries to address issues that occur at both the middle and higher levels of a company in the book. Baldoni is a recognized leadership consultant, speaker, and author of many books. He was named one of the “30 Most Influential Leadership Gurus” for 2007 by www.LeadershipGurus.net. His leadership writings have appeared in BusinessWeek and FastCompany.

According to Baldoni those who lead from the middle are those who can think and act strategically. Thinking strategically means thinking about how your actions impact the entire organisation. Acting strategically means working collaboratively with your boss and peers to overcome obstacles and affect positive change.

For instance, in step two, “thinking and acting strategically,” it is almost impossible for a middle manager to affect strategy in an organisation without the blessings of upper management. Step three is “pushing back the right way,” but mentions that leaders must be able to accept criticism. Both upper and middle management need to learn the lessons in the book.

The last chapter, “The Smart Guide to Positive Push-back” should be the introduction, to set the expectations in the book. These pages address the title and leave three choices for a middle manager trying to lead up: go with the flow; devise strategies to circumvent the boss; or leave the company. With those in mind, someone who is having trouble adjusting to their boss can learn some valuable lessons about leadership.

Those who succeed at leading from the middle are artful and adept managers. They utilise their management skills to establish goals, plan projects, organize people, and execute projects on time and on budget.

Three things essential to leading up are:

  • 1. Make certain what you want to do complements the mission and strategies of your company.
  • 2. Leverage your credibility as one who can get things done.
  • 3. Act for the benefit of the company–not simply yourself.

Leading from the middle requires a good balance of two distinct disciplines: management and leadership. Managers provide administration and direction. Managing up is the process of handling things for your boss, that is, when he or she gets too busy. Leaders provide guidance and inspiration. Therefore, leading up is a proactive process, seeing the big picture and seeking to do something that benefits the entire organisation.

To succeed, organisations will need to leverage the talents and abilities of their middle managers. Those who lead from the middle are problem solvers. They see things and they want to fix them. They seek to make positive change. And while they are not in charge of everything, the way a CEO is, they are in charge of some things. They manage their teams and their resources.

For example, if you are in middle management and you believe that your company should introduce a new product, you find ways of making your case for it. You position yourself as speaking on behalf of customers and employees, rather than simply yourself.

Leading up is not mandatory. Not every boss can be led or managed, especially ones who like to bully others. What’s more, if you feel it safer to lie low, do so. Now may not be the right time for you to lead from the middle.

At the same time, it can be rewarding for those who lead up. By leading up you demonstrate initiative. You show that you have what it takes to get things done. And as a result you position yourself to assume greater levels of authority and responsibility. What you do as a leader in a lower level position puts you in a good position to become a leader at the very top.

Useful Aspects of this Book

Baldoni’s advice can be useful in becoming a key player in your company, regardless of where you are in the organisation. He offers advice on leading from the middle, including how to develop spheres of influence, handle tough issues, asserting oneself diplomatically, and inspiring others throughout the company.

Here are a few of his key points;

  • Leading up is the process of leading your organisation from below. That means you lead the organisation from the perspective of a CEO but with the authority of a middle manager.
  • When you lead your boss, make certain that what you advocate – be it a new idea, initiative, process or product – meets the vision and mission of the organisation.
  • Those who lead their bosses are problem solvers. They see problems and they want to fix them or they seek to make positive change. While they are not in charge the way a CEO is, they are in charge of some things. That is, they manage their teams and their resources and as such they can achieve good results. More importantly they can look for new ways of doing things and seek to change the way things are.
  • Managing up is the process of handling things for your boss when she gets too busy. Leading up is the process of initiating things to do.
  • Leading up and from the middle requires two things: influence and action. Influence is necessary to open doors so you can be heard. Action is necessary to implement your plan.
  • Those who lead from the middle are those who are sensitive to the need to change and they lobby hard for it.
  • Leading upward requires a person to develop spheres of influence where one is perceived as a person who is accomplished, capable, and trustworthy.
  • When you disagree with your boss, you find ways to assert your position through the strength of your ideas. Argue on issues, never personality.
  • Genuine inspiration comes from accomplished leaders who achieve sustainable results that benefit individuals, teams, and the organisation. Those who lead from the middle know how to get employees engaged in the work so they feel they are making a positive contribution.
  • Those who lead from the middle are good at engaging the attention of others. They make a habit of asking others for assistance as well as giving it in return.
  • Leading upwards means learning how to deal with no! In every organisation, there are always more people who can and will say no than those who can and will say yes. Leaders seeking positive change need to learn to cope with adversity so they can achieve worthwhile results.
  • In times of crisis, leaders must do three things. One, be heard; communicate clearly and consistently. Two, be seen; spend time with employees so they know you are engaged. Three, be there; let people know you are willing to go the extra mile to help them and the team succeed.

Limitations of this book

The topic of managing upwards was dealt with a bit superficially and simplistically. It covers too many topics with what appear as almost throw away lines, pasted from his other books on leadership.  Headings such as ‘compromise’, ‘Share what you have’, and ‘Give of yourself’ seem to have been rattled off too easily without enough depth and thought from the author.

The style and examples of the book are a bit too American and may not be as appealing to the Australian culture. Australians have a natural scepticism towards their leaders. This ‘Ned Kelly’ attitude views authority and upper management as something to be distrusted until it shows it has earned the right to be respected. Lead Your Boss doesn’t recognise any of this tendency or how this can alter things (e.g. if you do manage upwards it can be misunderstood as ‘sucking up’.).

The book covers a lot of leadership subjects and can be a good guide for someone who needs the lessons of leading—either up or down. Because it addresses so many aspects of leadership, it misses the mark set by the expectation in the title. This is a book on leadership for middle managers but doesn’t really show you how to deal with a boss who doesn’t lead.

A number of people have been critical of this book feeling that some of the advice is limp and full of clichés such as “discover your inner compass” and “challenge the status quo.” The book has some of the feel of pop business and self help books but tries to present itself as a highly credible and professional leadership book.

The book started by describing why managers fail: ineffective communication, poor interpersonal skills, job mismatch, failure to clarify direction and performance expectations, and failure to delegate and empower. Instead of general advice like “exert courage in times of crisis”, it would have been good to have tangible business examples and very specific steps, actions and approaches that resulted in successfully influencing positive outcomes.

The reference in the beginning of the book to Tiger Woods making an effort to “take time off for fun and family” is humorous in light of his affairs. In a book talking about models of good leadership it wasn’t a great choice or one you would want to encourage young people to follow. There are a number of errors and typos in the book and this lowers the professional feel of the book.

The major limitation of this book however, is that it tried to do too much. If it covered less of ‘leadership for all times and all people’ and focused more on good real life examples and issues, it would have been more valuable to readers.

Conclusion

The book puts a lot of emphasis on good leadership that influences those above and all around them to do things better.  This message is very useful and needs to be said again and again in different ways. Senior leaders need to encourage leadership from the middle. Their legacy depends upon developing the next generation of leaders. Good leaders encourage their up and coming leaders to assume more responsibility and to act on their own initiatives, as long as those initiatives are in sync with the mission and goals of the organisation.

Step 9, Leading With Presence had many good ideas and is central to being a successful leader and influencing those around you. Baldoni again tries to do too much in this chapter but there are many good ideas in the chapter, the reader might just need a coach to determine which ones are the best for them!

Those who lead from the middle today are those that will lead from the top tomorrow. If they learn lessons well on how to manage upwards, they will challenge their direct reports and teach them how to do this effectively.

Ron Cacioppe

Ron Cacioppe is the Managing Director of Integral Development and holds a BSc, an MBA and a PhD. He has taught in the Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University, Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

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