Entrepreneurs – Start thinking Bottom-Up Leadership!

WHAT is Bottom Up Leadership?

Bottom-Up leadership is thinking differently and being the pioneer amongst the other executives who promote a better way of thinking and doing. Bottom up leaders contribute towards the career journey of an individual, with the principle of “lead as if you were following”.

In this instance, leaders don’t take charge of the situation, but rather allow employees to initiate, ignite and drive with the objective of steering them on the correct path. A key to this leadership approach being successful is influence (from both the leader and employee). The influential capacity and capability of both individuals is critical to making a new business idea, product, process (or anything else) a success.

WHY should you implement Bottom Up Leadership?

Nine months into my appointment as CFO, I left an organisation in the Information and Communication Technology sector! With technology continuously evolving businesses must make decisions rapidly and be forward thinking in their decision making. Success in this environment requires broad and timely feedback from all parts of the organization. Unfortunately, at the ICT company this was not the case, forcing me to leave. A year later I received a call from a colleague (unsurprisingly) that they were being liquidated. This experience taught me a vital lesson - in a top down tightly controlled work environment, decision making is prolonged, often resulting in frustration and very often, the final decision jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of the organisation.

Similarly, whilst working in entrepreneurial corporates, the founders who did not let go of their “baby” and wanted to make the final call on everything(!), could not get their business to fully blossom, ultimately stagnating growth and innovation. Having experienced this in the ICT industry, product development innovation is predominantly driven bottom-up, as those on the ground best understand your customer requirements, what the industry provides and the opportunities to improve your competitive advantage! Not taking this into account can result in revenue loss due to client attrition.

Through all this experience, I realised 2 critical needs for the success of a thriving entrepreneurial environment based on a bottom-up leadership approach:

a) Innovation

Allowing my employees to run with their roles and responsibilities, allowed for an opportunity to innovate. Essentially employees are accountable to their actions, knowing they have been entrusted to do the right things whilst having me to fall back onto when needed. Enabling this emergent thinking and entrepreneurial behaviour created agility within my businesses!

By allowing all levels of employees to participate, unity is created, and this helps build morale and productivity, two key elements related to successful innovation. If you are continuously dependant on innovation, then all employees need to show leadership, as ultimately innovation is driven bottom-up and not top-down!

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States summarised the above very well: “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

b) Influence and Trust

By enabling my employees to run on their own with the objective of self-reflection, I encouraged them to improve their capabilities, and ultimately created an adaptive learning environment.

Enabling employees at all levels to have unique insights into your organisation’s goals and objectives (not only problems), allows for sharing of solutions internally, which ultimately can improve productivity. But to do this, you need to influence thinking differently.

Imagine yourself as a teacher who views his/her students as all A grade candidates, all of whom are capable to take on new challenges with guidance, whilst being pushed beyond his or her comfort zone. The 70-20-10 learning and development model identified by Morgan McCall and the Centre for Creative Leadership provides factual evidence that 70 percent of learning occurs through new and unfamiliar activities, 20 percent occurs through mentorship, and 10 percent through training.1

In conclusion, leadership is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. What works for one may not for the other, but the point is to experiment and try instead of locking down into traditional approaches. The question to ask yourself is: Are you as the founder, ready to let go of controlling your business, with the ultimatum of empowering employees under guidance?

1 Link to UC San Diego Learning Strategy expanded explanation of 70-20-10


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