Should You 'Lead Up'?

Man in suit opening his shirt to reveal superhero uniformIt's not just you. Even your boss is probably asked to do more with less. So she or he may not have time to help you when you need it. And make too many requests and you could be written off as high-maintenance. Writer and marketing genius, Seth Godin, proposes a solution: Lead up. He claims employees have more power to act and get things done than they might believe.

I believe Godin is on the right track. Companies have been downsized. Many managers simply have too much to do to give the kind of coaching and assistance that people got in the past, so if you wait for that, you may be waiting a long time. But, in many workplaces, especially in large organizations, there is a big risk to taking unilateral action. Alas, some bosses demand you get three signatures to blow your nose. So, depending on your boss and the organizational culture, you do risk getting in trouble, even fired, by making major decisions on your own. The notion that it's better to ask forgiveness than permission is only sometimes true.

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A safer approach to leading up
My version lowers that risk while still affording you more control than the typical employee assumes is possible. It's a two-step:
Example: Come up with a project you'd love to lead, ideally one that won't require more resources. That can be a great investment of your time: You get to work on something you care a lot about while gaining leadership and other skills. Besides, that's the sort of effort that could get you promoted or look so good on a resume that it could help you get a higher position elsewhere.

Just write your boss a concise email that explains your proposed project's benefits and that it will cost little or nothing in money or your boss's time. Conclude by asking permission in a way that requires just a one-word answer: "Is that OK?" You reduce your risk further by ensuring that your boss and other key stakeholders get due credit for any success, but you take responsibility for any failure.

You're annoyed at some cumbersome process that you or your co-workers must endure. Outline a streamlined version and ask if you might try it for a month, with no time required from the boss. Explain that, in a month, you'll report back on how well it's working.

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You'd love to get that weeklong training in Hawaii. In an email to your boss, make the case briefly and crisply, ending with "I have checked with Jane Jones in HR whom I've copied on this email. She said that if you approve, just click Reply to All, write 'OK' and it will be taken care of." That way, all you need to get your one-week Hawaii vacation -- oops, I mean training -- are three keystrokes.

Even my less risky version 2.0 of leading up could get you in trouble. With your particular boss, as they say, your experience may vary. But I believe Version 2.0 puts most employees' odds well in their favor. And hey, if your boss or workplace culture does require your getting approval to buy a box of paper clips, the ultimate example of leading up is to look for employment where they'd love you to lead up.

How to be the Wise Elder



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Michael Martel

Good article. Too many people assume that their boss has some grand plan for the organization and how to get there. Even if they do have a strategy, I find that most leaders are looking for their subordinates to give them suggestions, proposals to move the ball forward.

By using your strategy of making the decision easy for them, I say you should see success most of time as long as you keep their perspective in mind.

June 06 2013 at 5:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Carlos Gil

Great article Marty!

June 06 2013 at 11:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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