Knowledge Center: Article

Leadership Development

Managing up isn’t enough: Why leaders must develop their own teams

12/3/2020 Karen Rosa West, PhD and Megan Herbst

Managing up isn’t enough: Why leaders must develop their own teams 

No matter what exactly their role is, leaders all over the world find themselves splitting their time and energy among three main types of interaction: managing and influencing upward, interacting with their peers, and leading those at the lower levels of the organization.

For leaders who are focused on advancing their careers and taking on higher positions, the first two of these areas often take precedence. However, that prioritization can create a situation in which, perhaps unintentionally, they devote less time and energy toward relationships with their direct reports or others lower in the organization.

For these leaders, the approach is often quite effective: building relationships with and learning how to manage their peers and superiors are key elements of advancement. However, once leaders reach the highest levels of their organizations, this approach starts to break down because, at the executive level, leaders must be active contributors to the development of others. For those who haven’t focused much on this, it can quickly become a critical area of development.

The story of one such leader (we’ll call him Chris) shows why. Chris had devoted his career to supporting his boss. Chris focused on making his boss happy, did what he was told, and echoed and reinforced his boss’s opinions, even when his team had evidence that the direction they were heading was wrong. Chris wreaked havoc within his team, micromanaging their actions to ensure outcomes his boss had promised were delivered and pushing and stressing his team instead of having a difficult conversation with his boss. This behavior served him well: for more than 20 years he received promotions and raises in his boss’s wake.

However, the majority of his team were confused, and even upset, that Chris, who had not earned their respect, was clearly seen as the heir apparent to his boss. People left for other organizations or mentally disengaged from their jobs because Chris never found the time to develop his own successor or his team’s talents.

When the opportunity came for Chris to take the coveted next role, there was no one ready to take his place. This revealed to others higher in the organization the unhealthy team dynamics that Chris had created because he was entirely focused on managing up. Because he was seen as unable to lead and manage others, there was overwhelming organizational momentum to keep him from taking the role, and he was not promoted further. In the end, Chris suffered by not remembering that his team held the core ingredients to his future success. All he had to do was develop their talents. In our experience, Chris is fairly typical of aspiring executives across functions and industries.

In our analysis of assessments of more than 3,000 leaders at all organizational levels, we found that such behavior was one of the most damaging derailers—what we call behaviors that hold leaders, and their organizations, back from realizing their full potential.

“Build talent and teams” is a part of our META framework, which identifies the leadership behaviors that differentiate high-performing organizations, teams, and leaders as they seek to mobilize, execute, and transform with agility. At the individual level, building talent and teams means developing talent, building and developing teams, and strengthening organizational capacity. (For more on the META framework, see “Bringing your organization up to speed.”)

Managing up isn’t enough: Why leaders must develop their own teams

People whose managers aren’t engaged in their development tend to become disengaged at best and, at worst, may even leave their jobs. But not actively contributing to the development of others also has an impact on the evaluations of the leaders themselves, as Chris found out too late. Our data show that leaders who don’t actively contribute to the development of their teams are rated lower by their stakeholders on their overall leadership impact; perceived potential to take on future roles; and ability to build an inclusive environment, make the work of others easier, and value diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.

Managing up isn’t enough: Why leaders must develop their own teams

About the authors

Karen Rosa West (kwest@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office and the head of psychology, product research, and design for HLabs, the research arm of Heidrick & Struggles.

Megan Herbst (mherbst@heidrick.com) is a psychological analytics coordinator for HLabs; she is based in the Chicago office.

You can reach them at HLabs@heidrick.com.


Karen Rosa West, PhD Partner +1-312-496-1892

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