Do you find it difficult to influence people, and get things done when you are the “leader” but not the “boss”?
Today’s business world is moving faster every day. Hierarchies are getting flatter, “agility” is the new word of the day, and more and more work is project-based, outside the usual structures.
Consequently, you may find yourself more frequently in situations where you need to lead without formal authority (i.e. your team members are not in your reporting line).
Often managers find this challenging because they think a “boss” can simply tell people what to do, whereas leading as “primus inter pares” makes that impossible, especially when they are working with peers at eye level.
So how can you influence people and get things done when you are leading without hierarchical power?
The bad news is, there is no magic trick to it.
The good news: you can simply apply the basics of good leadership practice! In principle, what great leaders do even when they have the formal authority and hierarchical power, works equally well when leading outside the hierarchies. Getting things done by merely telling people what to do does not work well in the long run anyway.
Let’s get a bit more specific, and assume a kind of “worst case scenario” for leading without formal authority:
The senior management of your company has decided that you shall lead a newly formed, global team of peers, who have had limited to no interaction so far. The project comes on top of everyone’s daily work, and there is no specific outcome defined. It’s more exploratory, e.g. you as the team shall explore options, and find out what can be done rather than someone is giving you say a SMART cost saving goal.
Here are the key elements that you need to get right to get great results with your peer project team (but also with your virtual team, or when you are an expert in your organization without any direct reports):
1. Put yourself in their shoes
Nobody in the corporate world today is not busy. Even without the additional project work, it is likely that your team members struggle getting their day-to-day work done. They might not even know you, so why should they invest time with you?
What makes things worse, you are assigned the leader, not them. So it’s easy for them to sit back and wait for you to take action.
It may be a good idea to approach each team member individually first. Ideally in person, but if that’s difficult, a phone or video call will do the job. Email won’t.
Following Stephen Covey’s advice “seek first to understand, then to be understood”, get insights about their situation: What is their focus in their work right now? How is their stress level? What do they think about the project, and how much time can they realistically make available? What are limitations and constraints?
Understanding your team members’ situations and their specific needs is critical to the success of your project.
2. Find answers to the “what’s in it for me” question
This goes beyond understanding the situation of your team members. This is about what really drives them.
In their work, they have their day-to-day job deliverables already, which have first priority. Their bosses and other key stakeholders are after them, eventually having little understanding for a project that does not directly impact the bottom line result of their department or business unit.
So what’s in it for your team members?
Well, a simple illustration of a best case – worst case scenario may work wonders:
“Imagine what it will look like if we are successful as a team with this project”
Assuming your team members are reasonably smart and ambitious, they can easily visualize what success will mean to them. Getting a great team result will make them look good as individual team members in front of senior management and others. And great team work within a project on top of the daily responsibilities can be a great reason for a promotion. So as long as your team members want to move ahead in their careers, this approach might suffice to push the right buttons.
If the “carrot” question above does not get the desired effect, you can show them the stick and ask what it will look like when they fail as a team.
Equally obvious, people will quickly put two and two together, and understand that a bad team result will not only reflect badly on the team leader, but also on them as individuals.
Whilst these questions may be obvious, people might not actively think about them until you raise them personally. Once you do, you are probably off to a good start already!
3. Build productive relationships
In a results-oriented world, people tend to forget that results are always accomplished by and through people.
In his brilliant book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, Patrick Lencioni states that the basis of any good teamwork is “trust”. And trust can be build by simply getting to know each other on a personal level.
So, if you don’t have a budget, convince the sponsors of your project to invest in a kick-off meeting in person, even when this includes international travel. Rest assured that’s an investment, not an expense. “Having a beer” together (if culturally appropriate only, of course), talking about personal things like family, or finding common interests or hobbies can improve teamwork like magic.
Imagine the difference it makes when you work with a real human being you have something in common with, rather than with a name (one you might hardly be able to pronounce) which you barely know from an email address.
4. Align the team around a common vision
Every team needs a compelling vision, an exciting goal that they work for, something that keeps them going even when the going gets tough.
Discuss this vision with the team members together, identify the common ground, and keep reminding them of that vision.
If you need more input on how to create a compelling vision, you can find help here:
“The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner — Practice 2 “Inspire a shared Vision”
“Successful Executive’s Handbook” by Susan H. Gebelein — Chapter “Visionary Thinking”
“Leading Change” by John P. Kotter — Chapter 5 “Developing a Vision and Strategy” and Chapter 6 “Communicating the Change Vision”
5. Create quick wins
Working hard without seeing results can be frustrating and de-motivating. Identify how you can create some successes early on.
What might be the biggest step forward?
Prioritize using a Pareto (80/20) approach: “which 20% effort might give us 80% of the success?”
Success breeds success. Early quick wins are great motivators, and will encourage people to keep going.
6. ALWAYS sell every success as team success
As the leader of the team, you may be the one and only person communicating project progress to top management or other stake-holders. Make sure you sell every success as a team success. Because your team members will read your reports critically, they will hear about your communications, and when they get the slightest impression that you want to promote yourself rather than them (even if you have no intention of doing so!), you will quickly find yourself left alone.
Remember that a leader without followers is just a man taking a walk.
7. Market your success actively
Often people think that delivering quality work is enough to get this quality work noticed. That’s not true.
This is a mindset particularly found among “technical” people (engineers, natural scientists, but also financial people, lawyers, …).
Whether you like it or not, often perception matters more than reality. There are good reasons why companies spend a fortune on marketing their products, and your teamwork is your product.
Turn your monthly progress report and everything you communicate in writing into a powerful marketing message, and make sure the right people are on the distribution list. Seek actively for opportunities to present your work to others, especially key decision makers inside and outside your organization.
If you would like to learn more about the important subject of perception management, the following articles may be useful for you:
By now you have seen that, if done right, leading without formal authority may be easier than you would have thought. In fact, project work outside the normal reporting lines can eventually be much more fun and enjoyable than your actual job…
Would you like to explore more about how you can leverage your leadership skills and influence people? Let’s talk! Contact me now for an individual consultation without any obligations:
phone: +66-2 107 2025
or have a look at my signature program Six Month Leadership Upgrade first.