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Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #111: How Do You Lead Up Without Sucking Up?

November 5, 2020
Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #111: How Do You Lead Up Without Sucking Up?

Leading up can be one of the more challenging aspects of influence development, because your leader may question your motives behind intentionally connecting with them. Today, Chris and Perry talk about investing in relational chemistry as a way of increasing influence with your boss.

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Read the Transcript:

Perry Holley:    Welcome to The John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast, where our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, increase your ability to influence others, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holly, a John Maxwell, facilitator and coach.

Chris Goede:     And I’m Chris Goede. Welcome, and thank you for joining. As a reminder-

Perry Holley:    That sounded so radio-ish. Do that again.

Chris Goede:     I bet. Yeah, that’s right. That’s my radio face coming out on this podcast.

Perry Holley:    Keep going. I’m sorry. That was good.

Chris Goede:     You guys wonder why we do podcasts more than we do vlogs or Zoom, it’s because people… The feedback we’re getting is like, please keep Chris-

Perry Holley:    Yeah, right.

Chris Goede:     … on the radio. Listen, if you want to… Seriously, if you are looking for a guide to follow along the episode, or you have a question for Perry that you want us to address one of our future podcasts, go visit, and you can do all of that at that site. Well, we’re continuing our conversation, and I was just telling Perry, I love the fact that he kind of wanted to go down this John’s 360° Leader content as we were making our way through these different sessions of our podcast, because man, it’s so relevant to where all of us are in our leadership journey, and it points back to the model that we so believe in and The 5 Levels. So just been a great conversation, so we’re going to continue that.

This is a title here that I was like, “Should I really say this?” And then Perry’s like, “Are you comfortable saying this?” And I’m like, “Perry, what are you setting me up for?” I may not be on the next podcast. That’s what I feel like. I may be let go of my responsibilities, and then it’ll just prepare you and the next talent.

Perry Holley:    That’s right.

Chris Goede:     Here’s today’s title. How do you lead up without sucking up? Now, I love that, because man, I’m not saying that those that are listening right now are those that are sucking up, but we know those that are sucking up. So Perry, talk a little bit about this, and let’s dive into the content.

Perry Holley:    Well, in a perfect world, we would have a leader that would want to connect with us, they’re connecting down, they’re influencing down, they would try to know me and know my strengths and my weaknesses and how they can add value to really engage me and inspire me to deliver the best performance. However, in my personal experience, and then what I’m hearing from a lot of people that we coach is that many leaders are very overwhelmed and busy and not doing a lot to connect with their team. Does that mean you should not be actively trying to lead up, to influence up, and to connect with your leader? Should you be trying to develop influence with your leader?

Sometimes I’ve seen in places I’ve been that people get a little confused about that, that I need to cater to my leader, that I need to suck up, do I need to be the yes man, or whatever that those types of things are? And I thought, no, I think there’s other ways you can develop, influence up in the organization.

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Chris Goede:     No doubt about it. I think leading up can be one of the most challenging aspects of influence, of our development, of the journey that we go on. Because as your title points out, the leader may really question the motive behind what we’re doing. There’s a couple of things that come to my mind as you were saying that, was number one, there’s a timing aspect to this that I think plays a big role into it. How many of us have been in a situation where we’re leading the team and someone’s trying to lead up to us, and it’s just bad timing and it just doesn’t come across right? So there’s a timing there.

I think two other things to keep in mind, because this is so important, but yet it is challenging, but it’s needed, is you got to do this from a place of authenticity. That goes back to, what’s the motive behind you doing it? And then the third point I thought about was, when you think about this and leading up and it’s challenging, my thought would be, as you begin thinking about leading up, not, “Hey, what can I tell them to do differently or do better?” Or, “I think if I tell them this, they’ll be a better leader.”

What I want you to do is think about how you can add value to that leader and what they’re doing. So think about that for a moment. Timing, the authenticity standpoint, the motive behind you doing it, and then how can you add value to them is a great way to think about leading up.

Perry Holley:    Well, it really is motive. I’m glad you said that. Because why do you want to influence up, is to add value, not to get something for myself. Well, one way that we teach, and it’s really making an intentional connection to really begin to develop influence with your boss, and we teach it, John writes about it, called investing in relational chemistry, and it’s in the 360 workshop. But when we talk about this in the workshop, I find that many people, a puzzled look on their… had not considered this as something they could or should be doing, investing in relational chemistry with their boss.

Chris Goede:     I think you can substitute that word, relational… Not substitute, put a little slasher, and the ability to connect; relational and connect. So when you think about it, it’s not just… When you think about some of the relationships you have and the chemistry you have, I think you can also have that through the ability to connect. What we’re really talking about is becoming a student of your leader, of your boss. Like-

Perry Holley:    Yeah, love that.

Chris Goede:     … the ways to be able to connect or relate to that individual. So think about this. You put this in the notes, the guide that they can actually download, there’s a picture that you can go there and… Here’s what I love about it, you use the number five again, I love it when Perry uses number five. It leads back to everything five levels. But I want you to think about, as you’re listening to us, this pie-shaped circle, with five different slices. The first slice to consider is called listen to your leader’s heartbeat. Now, you go, “Chris, you just talked to me about it doesn’t have to be relational, it could be connecting, and now you’re talking about heartbeat. That sounds awful personal.” What exactly is John talking about it in regards to this principle?

Perry Holley:    Listening to my leader’s heartbeat?

Chris Goede:     Yeah, that’s right.

Perry Holley:    Do I need a stethoscope for this?

Chris Goede:     You have to get that close? Right.

Perry Holley:    It’s simply speaking to paying attention to what your leader cares about on an emotional level. You’ll most likely learn that there are these types of things in more informal moments, not in a business meeting, but maybe at the coffee machine, or maybe doing something after work, or just the casual… at the lunch room or something like that. It’s just paying attention to thank… John uses the laugh, cry, sing. He says, “What makes them laugh? What gives them joy? Just you paying attention to what they think is making them happy.” And then what makes them cry? Or what moves them emotionally? Probably not going to see your leader weeping in the office, but it’s an emotional effect that they have.

And then what makes them sing, John tells us that that’s really about, what kinds of things give them fulfillment? What do they feel good about at the end of the day? So when you start to notice these small… It really is the availability bias, and once you start thinking about this, it’ll be all over the place.

Chris Goede:     Oh yeah.

Perry Holley:    You’ll start to notice it. But because I’m not looking for it, I don’t see it. But what do you think about that? I think that that makes… Oops. Some people almost feel uncomfortable, but it’s really just studying, becoming a student of someone.

Chris Goede:     So I’ll give you just a personal example for me. So my direct leader, our CEO, Mark Cole, obviously, he has a calling on his life to carry on John’s legacy. Not personally, but as an organization, what are we doing to transform leaders? What are we doing to add value to people? Because I know that this is his heartbeat, one of the ways that I connect with him is when we meet one-on-one, maybe I shoot him an email, maybe I forward him an email from a testimony, maybe we talk about the impact that something we’re doing as an organization has had on an individual in their life. Because I know that that’s his heartbeat. I know that he wants John’s principles in this organization to live that out. So that is his direct connection. When I do that on behalf of somebody else, or even myself, how it’s impacting me personally, man, there’s a great connection there.

One other thing is even if things aren’t going well in the business, one of the things that I know that he loves to hear about and connects with is innovation and trying something new. Even if we’re failing at it, we’re completely okay with that. But I’ll share that story, even if it was a complete failure, because that, right there, will connect us. That gives him joy. That’s something that he even laughs about sometimes. So just little simple things like that. When we talk about the heartbeat, it’s not that personal, no stethoscope, not that close, but become a student of your leader, of your boss.

Now, we move on to the second slice of the relational chemistry pie. I have to say that, instead of just saying the second slice of pie, because then I get hungry. Those that know me know I love to eat. This one is, know your leader’s priorities. So the heartbeat we just talked about of the leaders, what they love to do, the priorities is what they have to do. There’s definitely a difference between that.

Perry Holley:    Right. If you are around your boss at all, any of the leaders in your organization, you can begin to see what are their do or die activities. What do they have to make happen for them to be successful? How does your boss measure themselves? What are their measurements? What are they being judged on? What are their most pressing priorities? I guess, this is almost redundant, it’s, priority is important. I find that when you know these things, you begin, like you said at the top, adding value. I can find ways to help them address those priorities. Now, more than likely, your job is already-

Chris Goede:     Tied to that.

Perry Holley:    You’re tied to that. But if you were unintentionally looking at, “As I do my job, how can I help my boss achieve their measurements, I can make them be more successful,” it just develops that relational chemistry, you become a go-to player, and that influence begins to build. That’s what I love about that. The next slice of the relational chemistry pie is learning what your leader is enthusiastic about.

I laugh when I start thinking about examples here, but I once made a bond with a leader when I found out, just casually, over a lunch meeting one day, that he was really enthusiastic about something that was called a big green egg. I had heard of this, my brother had had one, I didn’t have one, but I just said… He was really enthusiastic. He was talking about what he had done over the weekend, and I thought, “I better go learn about this big green egg.” So I began to learn about it from my brother, and I got some recipes, and I think you and I even started talking-

Chris Goede:     Absolutely.

Perry Holley:    … about it, we started sharing things. Because you had some knowledge about it, so I thought, I’m going to start just… Every time I get a chance… In a casual moment, don’t interrupt a meeting, “Hey, how about that big green egg?” No. But just let them know that I’m aware that’s a big deal to you, and it ended up costing me $800, because then I had to go buy one.

Chris Goede:     That’s right. That’s right. We’re talking about slices of the pie, big green egg. Perry and I will be right back after a two hour lunch break we got on here. These are simple things, again, and you’re like, “I can’t have that type of conversation with my leader.” We’re like, why not? Like, these are things that can connect you, and then you can continue to just kind of store and have conversations around. You might think it’s silly, but it’s how you connect with people.

My encouragement to you in this is once you figure out what they’re enthusiastic about, whether it’s at home or at work, it opens a door to connection. Now, what I want to encourage you is with the right motive, and just be authentic about it, man, tried to learn about that trait that they’re enthusiastic, be curious about it, even so much so that curiosity cost Perry $800 and growing, because we continue to buy–

Perry Holley:    You have to buy the accessories.

Chris Goede:     …  the gadgets and all this kind of good stuff. But man, if you have that, it’s okay to be able to connect with your leader. It’s funny, I’m sitting here thinking, not only is this something that we can do with our leader, we can do this with all people. This is how we grow influence and you connect with them. All right. So the next slice of the relational chemistry pie is vision. So are you supporting your leader’s vision? This is big, when you begin thinking about it, and this really means a lot to leaders when they hear other people that are on their team, in their organization, being able to regurgitate, being able to live out, being able to tell testimony and stories about the vision of which they have for the organization. It helps with the common language of what they’re going after, in regards to the culture.Perry Holley:    Right. Well, you want to increase your influence with your leader? State clearly what the vision is, because most people don’t know… They may have heard it once, but they could never say it back. Thinking about this, one of the greatest pieces of influence I ever gained, I was working on a team where the leader came up with some bold and challenging new vision for the division, and several people privately began to talk down and to kind of downplay the plan. It was just too aggressive and… I got curious, why would he be doing this at this time? So I asked him. I went and made meeting and said, “Can you tell me further? Explain that vision and give me some purpose behind that.” And he did.

Then I began to speak up publicly to help the others on the team to see the bigger picture, as I was now beginning to understand it. Our entire relationship changed for the positive after that. By the way, he was right. He took our division and organization, to a new place because of what he was doing, but people didn’t quite catch on. So when I was helping to promote that vision, he saw me in a different light. So I think that’s a big one for you to gain attention from your leader.

The final slice of the pie, of a relational chemistry pie, is about personality and temperament. I think this one is often overlooked, that when leading down in an organization, you expect your team to adapt to your personality. When leading up, guess who needs to adapt now? You.

Chris Goede:     Unless, unless you’re working for that rare great leader, which I would encourage you guys to challenge yourself to be begin doing this, for that rare great leader, even when he leads down to you, adapts to you. It goes back to… We’ve always talked about, lead people the way they need to be led. This goes for both… well, all directions in The 360° Leader. But generally speaking, when we’re talking about, now, leading up, you are aware of your leader’s style, you are aware of how they communicate, you are aware of how they like to be communicated to. All these things tie into you being able to connect with them, whatever that might look like.

For us, we use the right path, profile and assessment, which is a great tool. I’ll share the story. Mark and I were… This is probably maybe a year or so ago at a place where we weren’t connecting. Mark was aware of it, I was aware of it. Mark kept challenging me and saying, “Why aren’t we connecting? We need to be connecting at a different level.” And it’s all me, it’s my responsibility to lead up and connect with him. So I said, “Hey, can I have an hour of your time one morning? We’ll do it before work, whatever, it doesn’t matter.”

I literally sat down, and on a whiteboard, I went through some things that we’d been through, and I said, “Now, look, here’s my personality style, here’s yours, here’s the disconnect, and here’s why this is going…” We literally had a conversation that was engaging and fascinating to both of us that allowed us to share some things, that then allowed me to connect with him and his personality and temperament like I’d never done it before. So, just be aware that, yes, we talked about some heartbeats early on and some , but talking about tools and assessments that you can use to gain a deeper understanding of your leader’s personality style, their temperament, and how they communicate, and how they like to be communicated to.

Perry Holley:    Yeah, that’s great. I know we need to wrap up, but I’d love as you take us that direction… What I find about this relational chemistry, to some people, it sounds a little odd, but it is really been a game changer. But one thing I think the outcome of it is earning my leaders trust. It may go back to you talking about, are you feeling like you’re manipulating them, or are you trying to motivate? What is the motive behind it? But can you just comment, as you take us to the close, about how does doing this earn trust?

Chris Goede:     As we wrap up, a couple of thoughts. First of all, we gave you a couple of bullet points here today that you can literally generate questions for yourself about your leader. If you don’t know those answers, you got to go find them out. Now, don’t go sit down and say, “What are you enthusiastic about? What’s your heartbeat?”

Perry Holley:    Right. .

Chris Goede:     Because remember what I told you about timing? There’s also a way to go about it that he may or she may show you the door. We don’t want our podcast being the reason you got shown the door. So, I want you to go through that and begin to ask yourself, do I know my leader’s heartbeat? What are they enthusiastic about? What’s their personality style? How do they like to communicate? What’s their temperament? All of these things, you need to be aware of. We can make some assumptions about what that looks like, but I think until you really begin to think about that and have some time to really think through that, you don’t truly know the answers, and maybe even have some questions at an inappropriate time.

But as we wrap up around this word trust, and talking about leading up and talking about different things of increasing our influence, one of the things we talk about is that level two in The 5 Levels of Leadership, this is kind of the foundation, we say that trust is a currency to all influence. In order for you to build trust with your leader, you’ve got to be able to connect with them. I think the more trust you build… You’ve heard this story before, and we’ve shared it, where man, if you do level two right, you’re going to have so much change in your pocket as an individual contributor, as a leader in the organization, whatever it might be, that sometimes you may pull out that change, and it gets thrown out the window because you made a mistake or you didn’t approach it different, the timing was different.

But if you can figure out how to build this level to this connection, this trust level with your leader, then I think what’s going to allow you… You’re going to be able to increase your influence with them without coming across as sucking up. Because I think your motive is pure. You said that word motive, we talked about it a couple of times. I think if you go about it the right way, you’re going to have enough change in your pocket to where they’re going to know your heartbeat, they’re going to know what you’re enthusiastic about, and the connection is going to be at a place to how you can lead up successfully. And leaders want this. I know Mark Cole does.

Perry Holley:    Right.

Chris Goede:     He doesn’t want people on his leadership team that’s there to suck up to him and sit there and tell him what he wants to hear. Matter of fact, I’ve seen him over the years that I’ve worked with him, and I’ve known him for 20 plus years, give influence, more influence to people that are challenging him, that are telling them maybe the things that he doesn’t want to hear than those that are just sitting around, sucking up. So just consider that your leaders want you to lead up, they just want you to do it in the right way.

Perry Holley:    Man, good word. Thanks, Chris. As a reminder, if you’d like to know more about The 5 Levels, or about 360° Leader, you can learn about that at We’re also delivering those in virtual formats now, so if you’re interested in that, be sure to reach out to us there. You can also leave a comment or a question. We love hearing from you, and we’re very grateful that you would take the time to spend with us on this broadcast. So thank you. That’s all today from The John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast.

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