Skip to main content
How to Develop Leaders

How to Lead Up: Why Conventional Wisdom is Wrong

Okay, so welcome to another one of my Todd Talks, which always exists to equip you with actionable insights that you can use immediately to improve your leadership, make a greater difference in the world and help other people do the same. So today I’m going to share with you the story of When and the lessons that she learned about leading her leaders, aka, leading up. And I think this is a really important topic because our leaders need as much leadership from us as we need from them. And in a world that feels like it’s changing and getting more complex every minute, we need to look within ourselves and to our colleagues, not just to our leaders, for leadership.

Okay. “Our system is currently set up to automatically trigger notification emails to customers if their portfolios dip below a certain threshold. I discovered that the system was generating a lot of false positives, incorrectly coding customer accounts, as having dropped below the threshold, when in fact they had not. Luckily we’ve been able to manually block these emails from going out and freaking out our customers, but with the volume of emails that needed suppressing, there’s a good chance we won’t be able to catch all of them, resulting in customer relationship damage and potential regulatory fines. I’d been pushing to solve this problem for over a year with no results. But during Leading Beyond Boundaries, I recognized I’d been getting nowhere because I’d been jumping to action, trying to get people to solve this problem, before getting their agreement that it was a problem worth solving.

After the workshop, I focused on educating my manager and their manager about the false positive problem and its potential consequences. And I used a worrying example from a competitor who recently got some very bad press because their system was doing the same thing as ours. And in just three conversations, I was able to accomplish what I hadn’t over the previous entire year. My manager and their manager now agree that this needs to be prioritized. And in fact, they put a team in place to solve the problem with aggressive timelines.” Wow. So what does the story teach us about leading up? Well, I think it teaches us a few things, but I want to focus on just one thing for now. That the conventional wisdom that tells us that we shouldn’t come to our leaders with problems, unless we have solutions, is actually wrong. And it’s not that this axiom doesn’t have any merit at all. It does have some, because leaders in fact do hate when their people dump problems on their laps, when they haven’t pushed their own thinking first.

But this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t tell their leaders about problems, if they haven’t been able to figure out a solution. Imagine telling your own leader, “Listen, I know of all these kind of problems that could hurt your organization, but I’m not going to tell you about them, because I haven’t been able to figure out a solution.” No leader in their right mind would want that from you. So why do people believe something that’s patently false? I think it’s partially because that’s exactly what some of your leaders have been telling you. And my father when he was the CEO of Sony Video was one of the worst culprits of all. He used to tell his staff and me when I was an intern back when I was a kid, that in fact there are no problems. There are just solutions, but why do we need a solution if there’s no problem in the first place. I digress.

So it’s really important to understand what your leaders actually mean behind what they say, because they will often speak in a shorthand that’s embedded with a lot of implicit meaning. All right. So let’s get back to When. Her lack of progress before the workshop wasn’t because she didn’t have any solutions. In fact, she did. She didn’t make any progress before the workshop, precisely because she was leading with her solutions, instead of being articulate about the problem. She only started making progress when she stopped offering solutions and started focusing on the problem instead.

So here’s a challenge I have for you. If you have a leader who’s told you, “Don’t come to me with problems, unless you have solutions.” I want you to ask them the following question, simply ask them, “So by saying that, do you mean that you want me not to tell you about problems that I see that might hurt the company, unless I figured out a solution.” I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised by their answer. Okay. Thanks for listening. I hope you found this valuable and I look forward to seeing you next time, but in the meantime, be curious, be compassionate, be collaborative, but most of all, be curious.

Leave a Reply