Nearly 35 years ago, two Harvard professors, John Gabbaro and John Kotter, published a seminal article titled “Managing Your Boss.” In the article, they wisely articulated that strong ties with your leader are best for you, your leader, and the organization. Effective leaders don’t only lead their teams well; they also excel in leading upward. They understand their leader’s goals, pressures, and responsibilities. They secure his/her trust and buy-in, and they communicate effectively to their leader.
Great leadership requires great communication—communication that is clear and leads to action. In the same way, great upward leadership requires great upward communication. Like the majority of leadership, great upward communication is an art and not a science. Just as each team member you lead requires different leadership in different situations, each leader you will serve under has his/her own communication preferences. What worked with one leader you worked under may not work as well with your current leader. And you are wise to adjust to how your leader prefers to be communicated to.
Consider these three questions to help you communicate more effectively with your leader:
1. What does my leader want/need to know?
Remind yourself that you are likely not the only person your boss oversees and that your leader has other areas of significant responsibility. With that in mind, what are the essential aspects of your area of responsibility that your boss wants or needs to know?
Just because your leader has not explicitly expressed an interest in an aspect of your role does not mean your leader shouldn’t receive information and insight from you. Part of leading up is ensuring your leader has visibility to the most critical aspects of the area in which you are responsible. He/she may trust you to surface what is most critical.
Because this is an art, it is helpful to occasionally stop and ask your leader, “Is this something you want me to bring to you in the future? What level of detail do you want from me?” His/her answers to those questions may change based on your development and his/her trust in you and also his/her desire to occasionally press into specific aspects of the organization.
2. When does my leader want to know it?
Learn your leader’s communication preferences in regards to the frequency and timing of communication. How often does your leader like receiving updates? Outside of what the leader deems as urgent, I find that many leaders prefer bundled updates less frequently to rapid and continual updates on every issue.
Concerning timing of communication, consider what times of day are the best to check-in. For example, if you serve under a pastor who spends the mornings or specific days in sermon-prep, it is wise to avoid those times.
3. How does my leader want to know it?
Some leaders prefer face-to-face communication because they like to ask questions and process verbally. Others prefer well-crafted memos that can be sent beforehand so they can process alone and think before having a discussion. Either way, the servant-hearted approach is to learn your leader’s preference and adjust your communication appropriately.
If you can’t communicate well with your leader, he/she will be clueless about what your area of the organization is accomplishing or will experience the “cringe factor” when your email or number pops up on his/her screen. Either way, your effectiveness and your leader’s will be hampered.