Mike Useem is a professor
of management at the Wharton School, and Director of its research
center on leadership and change management. Mike’s been writing
and practicing leadership development for years, in classrooms,
corporate workplaces, and innovative settings such as historical
field trips to Civil War battlefields and executive trekking trips
to Mount Everest. His latest interest has been in the concept of
“leading upwards”—developing the skills, processes, and mindsets
to help leaders in increasingly “flat” organizations muster support
from, and offer counsel to, those in whose command they serve. His
new book on the topic is soon to be released by Crown Business Publishing.
As always, we wanted
to understand the connection between the new ideas and learning—and
our interview with Mike at the end of August took us down some interesting
and surprising paths related to the evergreen topic of leadership.
How did you get the idea for this book, Mike?
came during a conversation with a person who ultimately became a
subject of the study. She related how disastrous the mindset in
her organization had been. It was one of “kill the messenger” with
no room for upward coaching. As soon as I heard that, I thought,
“We need to understand and get beyond that kind of top-down controlling
As I thought back
to discussions with other managers and to research I had been conducting
on top management, I became convinced of a tangible need for an
explicit focus on upward leadership. What does it require of us,
and how do we build a culture that supports that kind of leadership?
You frame your book around some rich case studies. Give us a brief
version of one, and how it illustrates your concept.
take Charles Schwab and Co. in mid-1997. That was a time when the
Internet boom was really taking off—a time of great optimism but
also a time of great uncertainty about what the Internet would do
to companies like Schwab.
The number two executive
at the company was David Pottruck. He was hearing from many customers
that they didn’t want to keep paying Schwab’s high trading commissions
for stock trades through customer service representatives; but they
also wanted to talk to a real person, even if they were using Schwab’s
Internet option which offered a no-frills service at only $29.95
Pottruck came to
believe that there was a great middle ground between the Merrill
Lynch’s and the E*Trade’s, lowering the high-end price and combining
use of the Internet with live customer service. It was a huge risk
for the company—Pottruck forecast that the new strategy would initially
drive down a big piece of Schwab’s traditional revenue—but in the
end it paid off. A year later Schwab had doubled the number of accounts,
and Schwab’s market cap for a while even surpassed that of Merrill
But what was the “upward leadership?”
key to mounting this strategy was David Pottruck’s successful selling
of the idea to the governing board and to Charles Schwab himself.
Pottruck had to learn how to work with his superiors. Traditionally
he had been a brash speaker and a poor listener, and he tended to
railroad things through to get his way. But as he argued this new
strategy with his superiors, he drew on the earlier coaching of
a mentor, a top Schwab manager named Larry Stupski. Stupski had
been Pottruck’s boss, and they had frequently clashed. But Stupski
helped Pottruck learn how to work smarter with a boss and a board—and
to accomplish his goals in a more collaborative and trustworthy
So the mentor was the key in helping him learn to lead upwards?
and it was also Pottruck himself. He was about to leave Schwab at
one point when he was so at odds with Stupski. But, one day, he
finally appreciated that he himself was part of the problem. Then
Pottruck turned around and announced, in effect, to Stupski, I’m
going to stay, make this better, and do what it takes to work with
you. I’m going to try to learn from you how I can be a better leader.
The old story: a willing teacher but also a willing learner?
Both sides had taken the initiative. David Pottruck decided that
he had to become better at working with his superiors, and Larry
Stupski recognized that Pottruck had the makings of a great manager,
if only he could become more effective in leading up. Upward leadership
is best developed when you have able mentors and willing learners
both above and below.
So how does one ensure that a culture has people both above and
below working on this? How do you scale the “dual recognitions”
of the Schwab case? How do you create a culture where “upward leadership”
is everywhere and going on all the time? What’s the real role of
learning in all this?
organizations have done it exceptionally well, and together they
illustrate what it takes. The first, the U.S. Marine Corps, is viewed
by many outsiders as a paragon of a top-down culture in which officers
give orders and troops carry them out. But the Marine Corps has
instituted a practice requiring officers to present their plan of
action to their troops for critical review before execution. The
front-line soldiers are encouraged to provide upward feedback on
what’s right and what’s wrong with the plan. Where can it go awry
in the field? What are the downsides?
The Marine Corps
has learned to trust its 170,000 men and women in uniform to give
hard hitting appraisals of every major plan of action. Who knows
better if a plan will work than front-line soldiers who will have
to carry it out?
Useem: A good
second example is Ford Motor Company. Two years ago it initiated
a leadership development program that brings in more than 2,000
managers a year. The organizers divide the managers into action
project teams, and they are invited to pick a problem—what should
Ford do to fix something important?—and then they’re asked to develop
a solution. Other companies do this too, but what’s special at Ford
is the primacy placed on identifying a problem and devising a solution
that will be of interest to top management—and then learning how
to work with top management to solve the problem. Managers must
master the art of persuasively presenting ideas upward in the company.
What’s your third case?
Useem: A third
example is more limited in scope but equally significant in implication.
Jack Welch instituted a “reverse mentoring program” at General Electric
in which he required senior managers to find a frontline manager
in their operation who was well familiar with the Web. He asked
senior managers to seek advice from their subordinates to understand
the Internet’s potential at a time when Welch wanted every GE business
to take advantage of e-commerce. The younger people had to learn
how to teach upwards and the senior executives had to master how
to listen downwards. The reverse mentoring program emboldened people
down the line to appreciate that they too had creative ideas, and
that they had an obligation to share them upward.
So what would you generalize from these examples. How does one scale
up upwards leadership?
requires a combination of two elements. First, if you are leading
an organization and you want your subordinates to help you get your
job done, you need to create a mindset of learning and acting among
all. You want everybody to think strategically about where the operation
should be going, propose great solutions to pressing problems, and
fill in the blanks when you can’t. It requires that you signal and
support a culture of not killing the messenger. You want a mindset
to prevail that no one will be cut off at the knees for coming upward
with a fresh idea or awkward news, no matter how unpopular.
Second, you need
to practice leading up yourself. You can’t just create a culture
of upwards leadership overnight. It has to be grounded in you and
others around you routinely leading up and becoming better at it.
The Marine Corps’ upward feedback, Ford’s problem-solving teams,
and GE’s reverse mentoring all offer examples in which top managers
are doing precisely that. There’s no gene for management, there’s
no gene for leadership. They simply have to be learned.
Why do you think “leading upwards” is so important now?
leadership is more relevant than ever before. Hierarchies have been
flattened in many organizations, and competitive advantage increasingly
derives from the information you have, whether it comes from below
or above you. Every organization has to maximize those two-way flows
I also see that the
management world is much more complex now. One day you’re on a team,
the next day you’re leading your own team, and on a third day you’re
working across teams in joint ventures or virtual work-groups.
Everything is becoming
more of a “360.”. You need to obtain feedback and input from all
points of the compass—and you must also lead toward all points of
the compass. Our success depends not just on rallying the troops
below, but also mobilizing those above. And that requires teaching
others but also learning from others, both above and below.
Mike Useem is professor
of management at the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania
and director of its Center for Leadership and Change. He teaches
MBA and executive MBA courses at Wharton and short programs for
mid-career managers in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United
States. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brook Manville is
Publisher of LiNE Zine and Chief Learning Officer of Saba. He can
be reached at email@example.com.
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