“Leading Up” – How To Effectively Deal With Management


Characature 3x2

  1. The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.

  2. Max DePree

Sometimes the best questions come when you least expect it. Recently, I was giving a talk about community branding and one of the attendees asked me – “What is your advice if the Mayor insists you do something and you believe it will hurt your community’s brand?” Great question!

In economic development, there are many times when the political objective and the branding objective may appear at odds. Elected officials are generally not knowledgeable about branding and tend to have a planning horizon that is limited to their term in office. The time horizon for brand building is considerable longer.

But, this question isn’t unique to the public sector. In the private sector, it is also not uncommon that a senior manager directs you to do something that ultimately may be harmful to your brand. For example, virtually every marketer in the private sector has had to deal with the dreaded across the board -10% reduction of their promotional budget to help their business unit achieve its profit commitment. In my 33-year career as a brand builder I can honestly say – “I have been there, done that, and own the T-shirt”.

So how can you deal with the situation? The answer is to “lead management”.

It is important to understand leading up is not about telling management (or the Mayor) what they want to hear. It is also not about playing politics or “sucking up” to garner favor.

It is about making management a partner and staying focused on ensuring successful delivery of the desired end result.

8 Tips For Leading Up

Lead yourself. Don’t make excuses. The Mayor’s direction is simply something you need to deal with. It is important to stay focused on delivering the desired results, but not be inflexible on how those results get delivered. Maybe the Mayor has a better way. Assess it objectively.

Recognize that managers are people and your relationship with them matters. Get to know your Mayor outside of the business relationship. Understand what his/her values and goals are. Understand what your Mayor’s priorities are. Make it a point to know your Mayor as a person.

Clarify expectations. Know what your Board wants you to accomplish and how that relates to what your Mayor wants. If there are conflicting expectations, it is important to get expectations aligned. Your Board may have better access to the Mayor than you and be extremely helpful in this process. Your goal is to ensure alignment. But, it doesn’t mean that you can enlist the help of others to do so.

Be the expert. You need to know the facts of the situation and subject better than anybody else. Many times this means you will have to do some additional research and reach out to subject matter experts to understand if there is any experiential learning you can use as reference or for benchmarking purposes. For example, if another community has already tried to do what your Mayor is asking you to do and it failed, understand why.

Have a clear vision of what you are trying to accomplish and share that vision. Don’t assume the Mayor knows about your work and its importance on the overall economic success of your community. Be prepared to review your vision, strategies and progress to date with the Mayor and/or his/her staff.

Listen and understand what the real goal is. Rarely will management (or the Mayor) direct people to do something if there isn’t a driving reason. Uncover the reason. You don’t have to like or agree with it, but you absolutely need to know what it is. Often, you will get tactical direction that is not very well thought out. The tactical direction is far less important than the desired outcome. By uncovering the desired outcome you will be better positioned to recommend an alternative tactical approach to achieve it that minimizes or eliminates the harm to your community branding.

Anticipate questions and provide appropriate perspective. Nobody in authority likes to look stupid in public. Therefore, consider providing briefing (i.e. educational) documents in advance of meetings to lay the foundation for a discussion. Management (or the Mayor) is not your enemy; he/she is your partner. You both want the same end result. Be sure you provide the necessary information to ensure a data based versus opinion-based decision can be made.

Communicate effectively. Sharpen your written and verbal communication skills. Answer questions directly. Always assume your communication will be a matter of public record. Get tips from people who often communicate with management (or the Mayor) and tailor your approach to their preferred style of receiving information. Speak your mind. Don’t be afraid to take a stand. Management doesn’t want “yes” people. They want honesty, facts and your point-of-view. If you don’t know something, don’t bluff. Just say you don’t know and will get back to them with the answer.


Leading up is tough work and may actually include personal career risk. Nobody likes to hear push back on direction. But similarly, nobody wants to purposefully fail or be embarrassed. Key is ensuring your intention to seek a win:win solution is genuine. Educate in private whenever possible. Work from a data based perspective. I learned a long time ago that if a discussion ends up being opinion based, then the manager with the most stripes in the room has the only opinion that matters. Data can change the opinion of reasonable people, so do your homework and get as much data as practical to support your recommendation. Most of the time this means incremental work on your part. But, rather than feeling upset by the unexpected demand on your time, view it as a leadership opportunity. Leading up is critical to ensuring a winning outcome.

What are your tips? How would you have answered the question?

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