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Leading Up When You’re Not The Leader

December 20, 2022

This is the sixth post in my blog series on Change Management. In this post, I’m specifically speaking to people I’m very familiar with; front-line employees and mid-level managers. We’ll discuss how you can display leadership during a change initiative (and any other time) when you aren’t a senior leader. 

Be Positive

Positivity is often overlooked as a “skill” or characteristic in today’s marketplace. Still, it truly is something that a) you can cultivate and b) makes a tremendous impact on your company. It’s an incredible way to display leadership.

I’m not pushing any religious agenda with this statement, but a Bible verse encourages people not to be a burden to their leaders, “…for that would be of no benefit to you.” While it’s a spiritual principle, I think there’s a compelling secular application here: don’t be a burden. It doesn’t get you ahead. You don’t benefit at all and make things harder on those trying their best to lead you well. 

Even if you’re not behind the idea 100%, grumbling about the change (or worse, actively trying to sabotage it) doesn’t help. Unless you’re part of the change team (a group of people hand-picked to help lead the change efforts), you won’t know about the upcoming changes until the ball is in motion. This initiative will happen, so getting beyond those efforts is your best bet. 

I’m not suggesting you become a sycophant. By all means, take your concerns to your manager or supervisor and discuss them. Discuss it with the owner or a member of the change team. Share any questions or hesitations with them. 

Once you’ve done that, however, getting behind a company initiative, especially one you don’t fully agree with, shows next-level leadership. That signals maturity and preparedness for more responsibility to those in charge. 

Even if you’re not thrilled with the change if you can live with it, get behind it with a good attitude. You’ll help make things easier on your managers, set an example for your peers, and project the message that you’re ready for the next level. 

Understand the Business’s Goals

Businesses don’t usually make a massive change just for fun. It’s disruptive to work and hard on employees. They have a good reason if they’re making a change. You can show leadership in the change process by asking your manager or supervisor about the business’s goals and how you can help achieve them. 

One year, a company I worked for had a shortcoming in our landscape maintenance division. Sales were not where we wanted them to be in mid-August, and we were losing time to hit the goal. During a one-on-one, a direct report asked me about it. He pointed to the maintenance department’s numbers on the spreadsheet we were looking at and asked, “We’re short here, right?” I said yes. He asked, “Okay, how can I help us hit it?”

It was a moment of tremendous maturity, and it stayed with me. I cannot tell you how much that helped me as a manager. It freed me up; I felt like I wasn’t carrying that burden alone. And I remembered that attitude when it came time for his review. 

Another savvy question is, “Is there anything you’ve noticed that’s not a ‘directive’ but fits what the company is trying to accomplish?”

For example, if the company is switching its software to improve efficiency, that tells you “efficiency” is a goal. With that information, ask your manager how you can improve your efficiencies. And then take the feedback and act on it. If your manager says, “You could get out the door and on the road more quickly each day. Cut your time in half, and that would improve our efficiency,” you work on that. It shows you’re invested in the company’s success and interested in improving yourself: Win-win, my friends.

Provide Actionable Feedback to Leadership

Your managers, supervisors, and even your CEO want to make your life easier. They’re actively trying to improve the work environment for everyone. As part of that work, they need actionable feedback. 

Statements to upper management like, “Everyone hates the new process,” aren’t in any way helpful. Trust me; I’ve received that type of feedback from direct reports. It is also improbable that everyone hates that new process. That’s an exaggeration, and it puts unnecessary stress on your manager.

On the flip side, an example of helpful feedback might be, “There are a lot of people in the maintenance division who are frustrated with the process because it causes them to get out the door later and work later than they were before the change. The loading and unloading process is really cumbersome for them when everyone else is back in the yard.”

That’s helpful feedback because it gives your leaders actionable items to address. Perhaps they tweak the new process to prioritize the maintenance division or have other departments report later in the day, allowing the maintenance department a free run of the yard.

It gives them a) precise feedback, b) actionable, and c) allow them to problem-solve in real-time before these issues blow up. 

Providing specific, actionable feedback is exceedingly important to leadership during the change management process. 

Support Your Managers and Senior Leaders

You can do this, no matter your “title” in the company. Even if you aren’t exceedingly respected, you can use this time of transition to make yourself particularly valuable to your company. 

However, if you are a well-liked or respected individual in your company, you can be uniquely effective at helping your leaders. You carry a lot more weight than you might imagine with helping these changes, and ultimately your company, succeed. 

Ask your manager, supervisor, or even the owner or CEO, “Are there any tasks related to the change we’re working on that I can help with directly?” This question shows that you’re ready for the next level of responsibility in your company (meaning more pay) and that you’re committed to the company’s success. 

Even if there aren’t any tasks you can directly perform, ask your manager or supervisor, “Are there any items I can take over temporarily to free up your time so that you can work on the change?” Again, this shows next-level leadership. It also shows your willingness to contribute to the company’s greater good. 

Managers, supervisors, CEOs, and owners remember that helpful attitude. 

Conclusion

There are several ways you can display leadership and help with a change initiative, even if you’re not one of the senior leaders at your company. 

Being positive, understanding the business’s goals so you can align with them, providing actionable feedback, and supporting your bosses are great ways to display leadership when you’re not “the leader” during a change initiative.

Go back and read Part 5: Common Change Scenarios

Read Part 7: When You’re Done, You’ve Just Started (publishing 12/27/2022)