While working on my master's degree, I took a job teaching English. Here I was, a foreign student teaching college-level English. Quite ironic.
While I made a lot of mistakes, I got one thing right. I decided to help my students write and test well. In my mind, I wanted to help my students and honor my boss, who took a huge risk hiring me for a job for which I was hardly qualified.
I was learning to manage both my students as well as my boss. These were two different audiences, but both were important.
Almost everyone in a nonprofit, church, or ministry organization is leading above and below in the organizational structure. Even if you happen to be the founder/CEO/director, you still have a board you're answering to at some level.
I've found that the employees who get the best results, see the most growth, and are the most valuable inside nonprofit organizations have figured out how to lead the people "above" them and those "below" them.
Today, we're going to be covering one of those two concepts: how to lead up.
Four principles to ensure your leaders will never be able to live without you:
1. Become a go-to player
If you want to influence those who have positional authority over you, the most important thing you can do is simply do what you say you'll do when you say you'll do it. Honoring your word breeds more trust with those who lead you than just about anything else.
Every leader I have ever known is looking for someone on their team that they can depend on every time something arises.
Who wants the ball when the game is on the line? Who's not afraid of a challenging task? Who on the team can avoid the extra drama that sometimes accompanies those crisis moments and absorb the stress instead of creating it?
If that's you, you will have tremendous influence with your leadership.
2. Invest in relational chemistry
Almost every leader/director/CEO of an organization I know feels lonely to some degree. They feel the weight of the world solely on their shoulders.
And for a good reason, most of us don't feel comfortable just walking into their office and saying, "can we be friends?".
I'm not sure exactly what this will look like or what's appropriate in your environment, but you want to find a way to let your leaders know that you genuinely care about them.
Let them know that you know they have a tough job. Find out what dreams they are passionate about and ask how you can help them achieve them. If you want them to get behind your dreams, then get behind theirs.
3. Lighten your leader's workload
This may be the most important thing you can do to gain influence with your leadership, and it's undoubtedly one of the most important things you can do for job security.
When you find a problem inside your nonprofit organization, provide a solution.
Most leaders are peppered day in and day out with all of the problems.
- Giving is down.
- Attendance is lower this year than last.
- There's lots of staff turnover.
- Momentum is low.
They hear it all and feel the expectation of solving it all. So when someone shows up and identifies the problem and suggests a solution, that person will instantly be a breath of fresh air and far more valuable than the nay-sayers who have no ideas for improvement.
4. Be better tomorrow than you are today
I can't tell you how many times I've been sitting around with a group of nonprofit executives and one of them says something like, "I always prefer to hire people who I sometimes have to hold back than someone I always have to light a fire under."
Few things are more exhausting to a leader than trying to lead someone who has no desire to grow.
In a nutshell, they're looking for self-starters who take the initiative and look for opportunities to enhance their skills.
Here are a few tips on how to keep growing:
- Increase your capacity (and I don't mean work more hours). Often this is about working smarter, not harder.
- Increase your skill set. Be a constant student of your craft. Years ago, when I was part of a church leadership, I discovered that our music director, who had been on staff for over ten years, was taking voice lessons. His job was secure. He sounded great. But he wanted to get better—all on his own. That spoke volumes to me.
- Be an owner, not a renter. Renters do the bare minimum to keep from getting evicted, while owners approach their work from a different perspective. They care. They're invested. And it shows in their work.
Take responsibility for the success of your organization. Care as much or even more than the person leading you.
- Sit down with your immediate supervisor on a regular basis and just ask them, "what's one area you think I can grow in?" This will help you get better at what you do while also showing your boss that you care enough to initiate your growth.
As you read these four principles for leading up, think through how you can grow in each of them.
I truly believe if we pay attention, we'll start to recognize all kinds of situations where we can "lead up" and become invaluable to the mission of the organizations we work within and gain influence with your leader and your team.