Leading Up: How High Performers Manage Their Bosses

I recently reconnected with some of my old college friends. Like many reminiscing conversations, we laughed about cramming for finals, gross frat parties, and some of our more memorable professors.

We look back fondly on that period of our lives, in our early twenties, when our heads were filled with big dreams of making a dent in the universe.

While our lives didn’t play out exactly as we all planned, those women went on to do some big things. They lead multinational teams and organizations. They’ve brought breakthrough innovation to the world, generated incredible revenue growth, and made a lasting impact in their work. By all traditional marks, their careers are a success.

And they’ll be the first to tell you, they didn’t always have a great boss.

The high performers I see rise through the ranks at organization after organization have a very important thing in common: They lead up. These high performers proactive about leading up in three nuanced (yet crucial) ways:

1.    Their Conversations Have a Strategic Tether
High performers connect the dots between daily tasks and strategic goals. When your conversation has a strategic tether, it carries more weight. It’s no longer about the presenting problem in front of you, it’s about something more important.

This keeps you (and your boss) focused on the things that really move the business forward and can prevent you from diving too far into the weeds on low-value fluff.

Connecting your regular tasks to things like growing your customer base, improving efficiency, or optimizing high-value internal processes demonstrates your contextual understanding of how the business works. Proving that you “get it” makes you more valuable to your boss and it also ups the odds you’ll be asked to work on higher-level projects.

2.    They Get the Most from Their Boss’s Strengths
No leader is perfect at everything. But most leaders are good at something.

Maybe your boss is really organized. Maybe they’re great with customers or perhaps they’re awesome at delegating. Being aware of your boss’s strengths (and their weaknesses) helps you optimize your time together. Asking for your boss’s help with something they’re strong in gives you their best thinking. High performers know when that’s possible and when to find other sources of support.

For example, I think of myself as a good brainstorming partner. When my team comes to me with a new idea or challenge, I’m the first one to whip out the whiteboard and dive in. Contrast that with someone asking me to proofread something important. That’s typically going to be a frustrating experience for both of us.

3.    They Give Before They Get
Much has been written about servant leadership; a philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve those they are leading (vs the more traditional top-down power approach). I agree with this in theory. The primary job of leadership is to support and nurture those they are leading.

The challenge is, servant leadership is typically spoken about in a single direction: from boss to employee. Yet, the most successful boss-employee relationships embody elements of servant leadership in both directions.

For example, if you know your boss has a big meeting with her boss coming up and they’re going to review the new product line, offer to help your boss practice, or do some of the background research.

Leading up is not about sucking up. High performers are strategic and intentional in their conversations at work, and that includes conversations with their boss.

You can embody that level of intention with your boss by staying strategic, playing to their strengths, and being willing to help.