Q&A: Leading up, and Changing Culture

Received these questions from a friend of mine, a professor teaching a college course on the “Emotional Health in Organizations” and thought I’d share my answer with all of you who read Talking Story as well:

How does one effectively  “lead up” in their organization, if it is still managed like the Industrial  Revolution? How does one BEST change the culture from within? Is it REALLY  possible”since  the key leader always defines the culture of the organization????

Yes, it’s possible, if you are willing to do what it takes.

Life is short, and we all have more options in the best possible living of our lives, options we may not readily see at first glance. This is why great managers are needed, and why the coaching industry thrives: Everyone can use help with seeing all their options.

Room for everyone.
I don’t care how ‘flat’ a company is, management isn’t going away, and we don’t want it to!

One question at a time. Order is important, for Cause and Values are the keys.

First of all, keep your eye on your ultimate reward, and not just on the temporary obstacles. Be sure you see that reward clearly, by getting people out of your cross hairs.

When managers ask me variations of these questions, I’ll always ask them to step back far enough to see the big picture view with more clarity first — i.e. See the organization and not the people within it. Step back so you can reassess the values of the organization as Managing with Aloha teaches, and still know you commit to that organization’s cause (mission and vision): Can you fully make the decision to press on because you are sure that’s where you want to be?

Said another way, are you sure you work for the best organization for you, best deserving of your Ho‘ohana service? If so, let’s talk about “what it takes” to effectively “lead up” (more on that in a moment.)

Green Light: When your personal values are a match for the values of the organization, everything is easier (and more fun). Everything becomes more realistic — more probable.

Red Light: Conversely, the greater the mis-match in values, the harder work will become because win-win agreements are increasingly difficult to achieve, and

Yellow Light: Productivity and Progress require working agreements.

The people we work with — the “key leader” and many others — will always loom larger than the organization itself in our day-to-day work. However the truth of the matter, is that worthy organizations, deserving of our own worthwhile efforts to support them, are longer lasting and have more endurance, outliving the people who populate them, no matter their individual stamina or tenacity as a team. For example, Steve Job’s personal influence essentially ended with his death last year, while Apple’s lives on.

If you say, “yes, this is where I have a values match with our organizational cause, and I am determined to stay and work my way through this” let’s move forward and talk story about “leading up.” For then, and only then, we have what’s ‘best’ and what’s ‘really possible.’ We can have positive expectancy, for that’s what value alignment delivers (see Key 3).

Can you keep a secret?

The Golden Rule comes to work with us. Always has, always will.

No matter where you sit in an organizational hierarchy, both leading up (inspiring the creation of new energies), and managing up (channeling existing energies and all available resources toward mission and vision) really amount to one thing, and that’s doing your part to make work flow productively for everyone involved, so you can continue to do the best possible version of your own work.

In other words, after you turn the keys above (Value alignment, the Cause of organizational mission and vision), the next key you need brings other people back into the picture with Relationship-building (for teamwork, network partnerships, customer sales etc.) You work to be a great partner, so you have best-functioning partnerships, for life is not a solo proposition.

In our Managing with Aloha vocabulary:

By ‘Managing up’ you make crucial work easy for your boss, for you need to partner with each other. (Managing-as-verb channels existing energies, existing resources in the adjacent possible)

By ‘Leading up’ you inspire your boss and others with your work-relevant and/or cause-relevant ideas, and you ramp things up. (Leading-as-verb creates new energies, and new resources)

When you make work easy for others, they will reciprocate and make it easier for you as they’re able to. Often you’ll have to be the one to help them see how they can help you, for they aren’t living in your shoes, and so a good relationship between you is required, and always will be (thus The Daily 5 Minutes to help). There are centuries of past workplace experience which is testament to the Golden Rule and its ethic of reciprocity, including my own experience in a number of different companies. I’m confident that your work experience illustrates this too.

The Golden Rule works outside the organization as well, in all its connective networks.

“The Law of Reciprocity must be respected to build a sustainable business of any kind. This law postulates that in almost every case people reciprocate, especially when it comes to energy or generosity.”
Tim Sanders, author of Love is the Killer App and The Likeability Factor

So to be practical, and address your first step in “leading up,” return to your own workplace relationships and improve them in mutually beneficial ways. You don’t have to break rules and make new deals — in fact, you shouldn’t have to if you’re right about that organization being best for you. You just have to work within your present scope of influence in a way that serves others well.

It requires a win-win attitude. Start with what you can do well, and your scope of influence will grow by leaps and bounds. Best of all, it will grow in a way that’s Pono, and in alignment with your integrity, ethics, and personal values. That’s all integrity is, really, taking the actions which ‘tell the truth’ of your values.

Random is good

Can anyone change a culture from within?

I say yes, IF you act as the Leader with Integrity as just described, for I believe that leadership isn’t a position or title. Leadership is a degree of effectiveness in spreading your ideas, and anyone in an organization can lead; the word is a verb.

Culture isn’t static either: I write Talking Story today in support of the tenets of Managing with Aloha, because I so fervently believe that managers create culture, and that Alaka‘i Managers have the best shot with creating healthy workplace cultures in our society today, because Aloha is always part of the agreements reached within their partnerships.

I would agree that to actually “change a culture,” at least in the shorter term, the leaders of an organization must embody the integrity of the values they claim the company holds dear. And by the way, values can, and do change over time” ask anyone at Apple what’s starting to happen now with Tim Cook.

Curvy petals

If leaders don’t embody the values which match up with company mission and vision they won’t last that long. There will be no blooming until another leader takes their place, or they are otherwise overruled by the greater influences within the culture, and one of those things will eventually happen. The next leader to take their place can come from anywhere within an organization. When we look outside the organization instead, there is usually widespread awareness that we have a void internally.

And again, that’s where I think Managing with Aloha comes into play: To help Alaka‘i Managers mentor those leaders of tomorrow, or grow to become those Leaders of Value Integrity themselves.

Stick with me kid.

A Current Case Study:
On January 1st, Jim Sinegal, co-founder and long-time CEO of Costco, turned over the reins to new CEO Craig Jelinek (an internal promotion). Jim Sinegal has been called one of the world’s top retailers, but when asked what is proudest achievement is, this is what he said:

“I think the thing we’re most proud of is the fact that [co-founder] Jeff Brotman and I built a team that’s capable of running a business this size. There’s a management team in place that is very, very good and that has enabled us to sustain the business for a long time.”

Read more: The Empire Built on Values.
As of this writing, Costco has grown to be the 3rd-largest retailer in the U.S. and the 7th-largest retailer in the world, with more than 161,000 employees, 595 warehouses in 8 countries, and more than 64 million cardholders.

“Jim Sinegal has done an amazing job of keeping the company focused on their core values to create one of the strongest consumer franchises in the world.” — Ed Weller, senior research analyst at ThinkEquity in San Francisco, quoted in The Seattle Times

“Jim built Costco based upon the highest standards of ethics and integrity. He has always believed that if you hire good people and pay good wages and benefits, good things will happen. He also frequently reminds us that we must spend 90 percent of our jobs teaching our employees. Those principles define our corporate culture and make Costco a great place to work and shop.” — Ginnie Roeglin, Senior VP, E-Commerce and Publishing, and Publisher of The Costo Connection.


  1. Rosa Say says

    Pat Kiernan’s response to the question: “Do you have any advice for people on how to land their dream job?”

    I think you have to understand what your brand is, what you can bring to the brand, and regardless of how competitive the day-to-day may be, just always put in your best effort. In my case, my job is as much a performance as it is an exercise in journalism.

    Read more at The 99%: Pat Kiernan: On Curation Tactics, Getting Up Early & Calling It Done

  2. says

    Hi Rosa

    I sense that many people believe, true or not, that managing and leading up will only get you hurt or that it simply won’t do any good — because those who are in charge (that is to say, those who have power but may not themselves either be managing or leading well) take offense and are threatened when others bring forward new ideas. This is the belief, if not necessarily the truth always, but in some workplaces, there is no question: it’s and “industrial age” reality.

    I have a good friend who works in one such firm, a place where management provides employees with a stream of written, controlling directives about customer service that make little sense to those who actually are providing it, person-to-person. For example, upper management of the company considers selling certain items to every customer a service, but employees perceive this as simply a shallow or short-term attempt to make more money. Some customers may need the items; but many others do not, yet employees are judged on how many items they sell. This is only one example.

    My friend, who is a first level manager in the firm working for other managers, has performed his job for several years and has reached the point where he is now being asked to share his ideas with his boss’ boss about how things could be improved in customer service. He faces risks to his credibility and reputation if he takes too hard a line, is too negative, or only talks about gaps rather than solutions. Part of his challenge is speaking the truth when there is fear in every management level related to talking about anything that might make less of an immediate profit. Yet, in my friend’s gentle but courageous way, I know he will do a great job of exploring the reality of what the company is losing through its current approach. I think they are enormously lucky to have him, for he is a very caring man in a complex place and he has developed over time a reputation for being “that guy with ideas” and “that guy who is willing to talk about what’s really going on” without getting labelled as “just another troublemaker.” It has taken him years to get to this point, but his boss is now listening and helping him to share his stories and recommendations higher in the organization. While there is still no guarantee this will have any effect at all farther up the system, his integrity is such that he wouldn’t think of not contributing what he knows when asked. I believe he is a good example of exactly what you are expressing in this post.

    Not everyone will want to work in this way, so gradually (and I’m not hearing you say that, either). I know personally I wouldn’t have the fortitude to do what my friend has done, waiting out the many times his views have been discounted or discredited so that one day they could be heard for the deep value they might bring. His really heroic influence as a leader and culture change agent is in his patience, and I am so glad his understanding and alignment with the intended, if not actualized values of the company are finally beginning to pay off.

    • Rosa Say says

      Thank you for sharing your friend’s story Dan. I admire his patience as well, yet I truly wonder what it is about that company which keeps him there, i.e. how his value alignment makes it worth the efforts he pursues — especially if “controlling directives about customer service make little sense to those who actually are providing it.”

      ‘Tis true that managing up and leading up aren’t for the faint of heart when a good partnership isn’t yet in place, and it’s even harder when fear is an obstacle in the relationship building which is required.

      It was my Dad who first told me “Make it easy on your boss, and he or she will make it easy on you too” and thank goodness the longer version of his ongoing coaching for me included being true to my values, and learning the difference.

      I know it takes heaps of courage to walk away from the security and other comforts an existing job can provide, but if more people did so there would be far, far less tacit approval of companies and managers who are abusive: We have to stop accepting what they dish out.

  3. says

    A little context — a divorce, a bankruptcy, loss of a career as a consultant who had one big client….it was enough to throw him for a loop. Staying with the company I’m describing has been a way to get his feet back under him, even if the environment has been challenging. I have no doubt that as his confidence continues to return to him, he may well make the leap to some other place. And, truthfully, I think what keeps him there right now is his sense that he has become a kind of successful “black sheep,” that he speaks not only for himself but others, and that, too, makes his informal leadership work valuable.

    You know, human beings, it gets complex.

  4. Rosa Say says

    March 15th addition:
    In this post, I had written, “Life is short, and we all have more options in the best possible living of our lives, options we may not readily see at first glance.” I want you to honor your values and choose wisely — i.e. choose the right place to be in first, before you go through the pain and difficulty of trying to change what may not be destined to change.

    I like the way that Ryan Holiday puts it, in a post he wrote called, Be a good person; Do what you love;

    “Being good at something is not sufficient reason to do it for the rest of your life. But loving it is.”

    • Rosa Say says

      March 20th addition:
      More on this from Po Bronson (in an article first published in Fast Company magazine, January 2003):

      Of course, addressing the question, What should I do with my life? isn’t just a productivity issue: It’s a moral imperative. It’s how we hold ourselves accountable to the opportunity we’re given. Most of us are blessed with the ultimate privilege: We get to be true to our individual nature. Our economy is so vast that we don’t have to grind it out forever at jobs we hate. For the most part, we get to choose.