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“Leading Up”: Being a values-based leader at any level

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Without question, what happens at the top — priorities established, strategies set or changed — cascades throughout the entire organization. How can it be true, then, that anyone at any level can be a leader? The answer is by “leading up” (or “managing up”), a key part of values-based leadership that allows people to positively influence their boss or even the boss’ boss.

Leading up is especially important when companies are undergoing periods of dramatic or rapid change. During these times, feedback from across the team is crucial. Let’s look at a couple of examples from the headlines.

Animation studio DreamWorks has put in place a restructuring after spreading itself too thin over multiple platforms. Before the restructuring, CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg reportedly told investors, DreamWorks endured a “painful” period. Based on interviews with current and former employees, The Wall Street Journal reported that “workers of all ranks grew to have little faith in creative decisions, watching as fast changes forced expensive rewrites and schedule changes kept production budgets fluctuating.”1 You have to wonder: could that painful period have been shortened or made less excruciating if more people had “led up” to influence strategic direction?

Boeing, which for years emphasized new technologies for faster and farther-flying jets, is now focusing on “incremental improvements that it can deliver more quickly to airlines with greater reliability and at a lower price,” said Ray Conner, chief executive of Boeing’s commercial airplane unit, to the Journal. As Boeing shifts its strategy, particularly around R&D, will senior management seek feedback from across the organization?2

As changes in strategy and creative vision are unveiled by senior leaders, input must be welcomed from across the organization — whether it’s what works best on the production line or what customers are saying.

When I began my career as a junior analyst, my colleagues and I would sometimes scratch our heads over the directives that came down from the top. I made a vow that, if I ever became a boss (one of “those guys” making the decisions), I’d always listen to the people doing the work because they had a valuable perspective.

Fast forward many years and I was one “those guys” (a gender-neutral term), eventually becoming CFO and then CEO and chairman of Baxter International, a $12 billion health care company. Because I always invited feedback, people knew they could tell me exactly what they thought. Although I based my final decisions on the best information I had at the time, I sometimes received feedback after a memo went out on a change in procedure or strategy from people who weren’t afraid to “lead up” and tell me, “Harry, if this is what you want us to do, we’ll do it. However, are you are aware of the following …?”

And, when a change was implemented that made sense, people were quick to provide positive feedback, as well. Information flowed in both directions, which is the sign of a healthy, values-based organization.

Leading up requires clarity and confidence. The key here is self-reflection, which is a fundamental principle of values-based leadership. Self-reflection is the gateway to self-awareness, to understand yourself and your values as you relate to and influence others. Personally, I engage in self-reflection at the end of the day when I ask myself questions such as: Did I do what I said I was going to do — and if not, why not? Did I fall short of expectations? How did I treat people? If I could live the day over again, what would I do differently?

For leading up, self-reflection can act as an early warning detection system when something feels uncomfortable or “off.” Through self-reflection, you become more honest with yourself: “Am I being resistant to change, or am I truly concerned?”

As you decide to voice your opinion, such as about a new strategy or policy, self-reflection will keep you aware of your motivation. Am I acting in my own interest (wanting to “look good” or make someone else “look bad”) or am I really acting in the interest of the organization?”

With the insights gained from self-reflection, you can go to your boss with more clarity and confidence. Perhaps your boss didn’t see things as you did and is open to feedback. As you present your argument logically — why something doesn’t make sense, is not in the best interest of the organization, or is not grounded in values — your boss may very well come on board.

If your boss doesn’t get it, and perhaps doesn’t want to get it, you will be faced with another challenge. Your only chance here is to go to your boss’s boss. Before taking that step, self-reflection keeps you grounded: “Has anything my boss said changed my mind? Am I ego-invested at all?”

If you remain convinced about speaking up, it’s time to take the step of asking for a meeting with your boss’s boss—and inviting your boss to come along so there is no question about what is said or decided.

As organizations respond more quickly to changes in the competitive landscape, getting feedback from across the ranks is imperative. Those who have the clarity and confidence to “lead up” by speaking up are demonstrating their values-based leadership. They are committed to doing the right things for the right reasons — and acting in the best interest of the organization.

  1. Erich Schwartzel, “How Jeffrey Katzenberg Is Rewriting Dreamworks’ Script,” The Wall Street Journal, March 29, 29015.
  2. Jon Ostrower, “At Boeing, Innovation Means Small Steps, Not Giant Laps,” The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2015.

Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr. is the author of “Becoming the Best: Build a World-Class Organization through Values-Based Leadership” (Wiley, 2015), and the best-selling “From Values to Action: The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership.” Kraemer is the former chairman and CEO of Baxter International.

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