Lead Up and Learn Up

MYTH: Individual Contributors can’t shift the paradigm at the organizational level. 

Our team has a long-term partnership with a multinational company to facilitate leadership training for all of their Managers of People (MOPs) and Individual Contributors here at the local site. The program we’ve developed for them consistently receives glowing reviews, with one caveat: Individual Contributors are skeptical of a real shift among the “higher-ups”. The feeling is something like, “This is great and all, but unless corporate changes the way we do things, I can’t have an impact.” 

Let’s tackle the myth. 

Willie Pietersen, Professor at Columbia University and former CEO, refers to leading up as “The Neglected Competency” and says, “Leading up effectively is not easy to pull off. But I think we owe a duty to help each other learn and grow regardless of rank. We all have our blind spots. When I look back on my corporate career, the subordinates I valued most were those who helped me grow as a leader.”

Did you know that Starbucks didn’t always write customer names on the cups? Pietersen highlights this story as an example of small, incremental change that influenced a corporate shift: 

In 2011 an imaginative barista decided to enhance [the] personal experience by writing the first names of customers on cups, instead of just calling out the name of the drink that had been ordered. The idea raced to headquarters and today this simple practice happens four million times a day at 30,000 locations worldwide.

Individual Contributors can and do influence organizational change every day. Sometimes it happens slowly, with small, incremental changes within a team or a department. Sometimes it happens overnight on a global scale. In every case, it takes guts and it starts with leading the self. John Maxwell emphasized leading the self when he crafted a simple message nearly a decade ago with 9 Ways to Lead Your Leader:

  1. Lead yourself exceptionally well.
  2. Lighten your leader’s load.
  3. Be willing to do what others won’t.
  4. Do more than manage – lead!
  5. Invest in relationship chemistry.
  6. Be prepared every time you take your leader’s time.
  7. Know when to push and when to back off.
  8. Become a go-to player.
  9. Be better tomorrow than you are today.

So we bust the myth; we learn to lead ourselves in such a way that we Lead Up and influence organizational change…and then we tackle the fact that we need our top leadership to Learn Up in order for our organization to be a living, thriving place. 

Pietersen says, “Arguably the most important learning is that which occurs from the ground up. When that circuit is blocked, an organization faces a survival problem. According to a Gallup poll, companies that listen to their employees are 21 percent more profitable than the competition.” 

Leaders who Learn Up are more likely to see higher profits! Organizations that encourage Individual Contributors to Lead Up and Leaders to Learn Up are likely to make. more. money.

Be a workplace of and for the future. Lead Up and Learn Up.


Jillian Miles Massey