Thomas Barta: Leading your boss and colleagues matters more than leading your team

Success in a customer-facing role is all about mobilising two groups of people that most leaders overlook: their bosses and their colleagues.

Leadership. If there were a prize for the world’s most overused word, I’d give it to leadership. Yet much of today’s leadership buzz still points in one direction: downwards – leading your team. The perplexing truth is that leading your bosses and colleagues may be more important.

Let’s step back in time. In the early 1900s, top-down leadership and the theories of Max Weber et al were in fashion. Firms were pretty hierarchical then. The boss called the shots. Success meant getting the most out of the people below you and executives craved tips on how to lead the team.

And today? In a digital, global world, is the most important task still to lead your team? London Business School’s Patrick Barwise and I asked that question in a large-scale study. The answer might surprise you. Yes, leading your team still matters – of course it does – but today, leading your bosses and your colleagues matters more.

Mobilising your colleagues (or, leading sideways)

No matter how high you climb, in a customer-facing role, you’ll never call all the shots. There’s also production, sales, customer service, and so on. All of these together create the customer experience. To improve what customers get, executives must be able to lead sideways and influence their colleagues.

The results of our research were striking. For the people in our study, knowing how to mobilise colleagues explained 22% of their business impact and even 32% of their career success. That’s pretty substantial.

Many people still hope to influence their colleagues by pushing business issues up the company’s seniority ladder. How? It’s simple. You convince your boss of an idea and then hope he or she will get everybody in the company to follow. This approach may work in some cases. But in our study, the most successful leaders have mastered a different approach: starting internal movements.

Lasting change happens when people really believe in an idea. Creating that belief is hard work, but it’s the most powerful way to mobilise colleagues.

Nobody on the board cares about programmatic advertising or virtual reality. Talk revenue, customers and profit.

Great mobilisers always tell a story. A story of hope. A story that captures people’s hearts and minds. Colleagues may like your software, system, or process, but to be excited by these things they need to see the ‘why’ behind your idea – the benefits to themselves and others. Take Ed Smith, former group marketing director of News Corp Australia, now heading up Amazon’s European marketing. When he installed a paywall at Australia’s iconic business daily, The Australian, he didn’t talk about profits; he talked about “saving quality journalism”.

READ MORE: The Aussie CMO getting under the skin of Brexit Britain

Of course, walking the halls and telling compelling stories is just the beginning. The next thing great mobilisers do is shut up and listen. To actualise change, it’s key to dig into people’s real concerns. Some counterarguments may simply be dumb. But more often, there are real issues on the table, and turning those problems into solutions is critical for change.

But even after a decision has been made with all that input, the job isn’t done yet. Colleagues expect leaders to get back to them and explain what was decided. It’s called ‘listen, decide, communicate’ (LDC), and it works.

Most importantly, making change happen also always means going first. Be the change you want to see. Get your hands dirty, get on the front line, get busy serving customers, live the case for change. It sounds corny, but this also works.

Mobilising your boss (or, leading upwards)

Even in the 21st century, bosses still matter. If the customer isn’t high on the boss’s agenda, your projects won’t get a green light. Unsurprisingly, in our research, mobilising the boss explained 23% of people’s business impact.

Hover over the chart below to reveal the percentages

The sobering truth with bosses is this: they call the shots, but they can be wrong (some people would argue that their bosses are wrong more often than they’re right). It’s human. Our world is complex. Senior leaders increasingly depend on the insights and challenge of their own teams. Played right, mobilising your boss is a true win-win affair. Your boss gets critical insights and ideas; your key projects get the go-ahead.

To lead upwards you must have a seat at the table. In customer-facing roles this means, foremost, building trust. But here’s the thing: most customer-facing projects are future-focused and their benefits are therefore hard to prove. No matter how good you are, what you say and promise may never be accurate. For bosses, it is easy to distrust you.

Building trust upwards starts with working on what matters. If what you do is seen as a big issue and a priority upstairs, you’ll be on the agenda. Great mobilisers always know what customers – both external and internal – need. People who fully understand what’s hot for customers and for the CEO, and act accordingly, simply have more influence.

The sobering truth with bosses is this: they call the shots, but they can be wrong (some people would argue that their bosses are wrong more often than they’re right).

One issue that almost certainly matters for bosses is return on investment. Because customer-facing success can be hard to measure and prove, there’s a latent distrust about whether you are spending the company’s money well. Try and create impressive returns, and then go overboard and prove them. Even estimates are 10 times better than saying nothing.

Even if you can show your returns, watch your language, especially if you work in a buzzword-prone role like marketing or customer service. Keep your language close to the revenue line. Nobody on the board cares about programmatic advertising or virtual reality. Talk revenue, customers and profit.

For people in customer-facing roles like marketing, times have changed. To make your customers happy and to pull off a successful career, you must lead your boss, your colleagues and your team. So when your leadership is upside-down – in other words you can influence upwards and sideways as well as downwards – you’ll know that you’re doing fine.

Thomas Barta is one of the world’s premier customer leadership experts, a professional keynote speaker, and co-author of The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader with Patrick Barwise.

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