Leading when you're not the boss

Jul 01 2014 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Most of what we hear about leadership is about leading people who work for us or with us. But what do you do when the people most in need of coaching outrank you? For example, how do you tell your boss that (s)he’s dragging a meeting down? That requires leadership as well, the kind that’s often referred to as “leading from the middle of the pack”.

This is a common problem for many managers. Someone with more horsepower wants to take over the meeting. Or maybe they’re fixated on one line item like a dog with a sock, unable to let it go. How do you tell them diplomatically to shut the heck up and let someone else talk? More precisely, how do you do it in a way that ensures you will have a job come the next meeting?

In virtual meetings, of course, you have the benefit of physical distance between you and an errant superior. Here are some ways to “manage upwards” in a virtual environment that can equally be applied to the physical office (with suitable modification…)

Make sure that everyone - that means EVERYONE - knows how much time you have to accomplish your goals. Explicitly state your time constraints and your desired outcome at the beginning of the meeting. That way, if things are dragging, you can manage the discussion more diplomatically. “This is great stuff, and I wonder if we might table that because we only have xxx minutes to hear from everyone”. If you make a habit of checking the time it won’t be obvious you’re talking about the boss.

Sometimes just the presence of a senior person on the call throws off the dynamic of the conversation in ways they don’t even notice. In most cases, if you’re focused on the desired, stated, outcome of the meeting, the Boss will be obliging and willing to hold comments until the appropriate time. They just have to be convinced that they’ll be answered. Try something like, “I can see you’re concerned about that. I think if we hear from xxx and xxx you’ll get a better sense of where we’re going and this will make more sense”

Phrase any feedback in terms of how it will impact the boss’ priorities. “We need to do this because you said xxx was most important to you. When we settle this, we can focus on that without any distractions.” Of course, you always want to add, it’s your call……”.

Not all feedback needs to happen on the call. If the Boss’ behavior is becoming habitual, you might want to have a private conversation (and conversation is WAYYYYY better than email for this). Always ask permission to give feedback, and be behavior-specific. It’s especially true if you stay focused on how that behavior impacts the team, and thus things the boss cares about like productivity, morale or turnover.

Offer to run the technology for the more senior people. Odds are they’re going to ask someone to do it anyway, but you can help direct traffic from the co-pilot seat. Encourage people to contribute, call the speaker’s attention to comments or questions in chat, and keep an eye on the time. It’s easier to do that from a position of some authority.

Arrange the agenda so that the action items the Boss is most interested in are first. It’s conceivable you can satisfy them and let them “get back to work”, which of course is exactly what you and your team are hoping to do. If you’re seen as valuing their time, they’re more likely to stay focused and then depart.

Having your boss or your boss’ boss work with your team is a mixed blessing. But it needn’t become an excuse to become unproductive and silent.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments for more than 20 years. In 2016, he merged with The Kevin Eikenberry Group, to create The Remote Leadership Institute, and now serves as Master Trainer and Coach to the Kevin Eikenberry Group. Wayne is also is the author of more than 15 books, including The Long-Distance Teammate and The Long-Distance Team.