How to Lead When You Have No Power

How to lead when you have no power

The lion’s share of coaching moments I have with managers of the teams I manage revolve around cross functional projects. Even if you’ve managed a hundred of them, they’re still really hard. I have to admit; I still struggle with them to this day. There is no playbook or guide or training that offers a silver bullet approach for leading people you don’t manage.

Here’s a classic example to illustrate my point:

A senior executive asks you and 3 other managers to take on an initiative and deliver in the next 30 days. It’s extremely important to the company and the stakes couldn’t be higher. They’re depending on you guys to deliver something great.

You get together, some sort of kickoff meeting takes place, and then things get tricky …

Who is really in charge?

Why did we all interpret the objective differently?

How do we resolve conflicts?

Whose priorities are most important?

What happens when we reach an impasse?

This same scenario repeats itself over and over again in every company in the world. It’s very similar to when you had to do group work in college. But the option of just doing all the work yourself isn’t viable in a global corporation. Plus, your career is at stake.

More often than not, cross functional projects tend to stall out or implode completely. Frequently they reach an impasse and the team feels like there is no other way to move forward other than to re-engage the senior leaders who gave the original direction. At some point the executives come in, see the project has not made good progress, break the impasse, and get the project moving again.

Many projects end up in this place, and it’s a bad one for the company and for your career. In the absence of legitimate organizational power, managers struggle to operate effectively. If your cross functional projects frequently degrade to the point where you need to bring in outside help from executives, you are basically advertising that you aren’t ready to be a leader yet. It’s bad for everyone involved.

There are many reasons why this happens. If you’re curious about power as a concept and want to dive deeper into the subject, I highly recommend The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. You can also go to the original work on the subject and read about French and Raven’s Five Forms of Power. Here’s a short summary of that one.

For today, I’m going to offer 4 tips I use in projects and scenarios where I don’t have legitimate power. I hope they are helpful to you.

1. Make the Objective Your Source of Power

The tendency, when working on a cross functional project, is for each stakeholder to fixate on their own agenda. Most managers have a really hard time contemplating objectives that extend beyond the interests of their own team. The impact is they tend to lose sight of the bigger picture when participating in a project that spans many groups and functions. Each functional manager represents her own interests but the voice of the company is silent since the originating executive is no longer an active participant.

More often than not, it becomes apparent at the first progress checkpoint that the group has veered off course from the original objective. The executive sponsor needs to re-enter the equation and reset the objective. It’s an embarrassing outcome and makes all participants seem a little less competent as leaders.

When I’m working on a project with managers who are overly focused on their own agendas, I’ll abandon my own interests and represent the company. It’s really easy to do and can be a great source of power within the project team. By continually reminding the team of the higher level goal – the company’s goal – you can get the team to break away from their personal agendas and showcase yourself as the de facto leader.

My recommendation to managers is to drop your personal agenda in a multi team project. Be the voice of the company and let the higher level objective be your source of power.

2.  Reject Passive Aggressiveness

Passive aggressive behavior will kill a project. Posturing, pandering, condescension, faux alignment. Multi team projects are ripe for passive aggressiveness. How many times have you been on a project team where the various managers won’t just say what they mean? The more visibility the project has, the worse it seems to get. Nobody wants to be seen as difficult or unsupportive. We don’t want it getting back to our boss or the sponsoring executive that we are an obstacle. So instead of debating and offering candid opinions, we speak in half-truths, we position and package, we hedge. The impact of passive aggressive behavior on a project team is that nothing gets accomplished. You leave meetings and pretend things are moving forward when they really aren’t. We agree to things … but not really. And then later we wonder why the project was unsuccessful.

I made a decision a long time ago not to be passive aggressive at work. I suggest you do the same and take it another step further. I explicitly reject passive aggressive behavior when I see it and I do whatever I can to force people to express their true feelings when I’m involved in a project. I frequently say things like:

Are you sure that’s really how you feel?

Does that really work for you?

I know you said you were ok with that, but isn’t there more to it?

I ask a lot of follow up questions and probe people to express themselves when I think they may be holding back to seem agreeable. And in so doing, I present myself as a leader even though I don’t directly manage anyone in the project. I am representing the project – not myself – by forcing people to be open and truthful and to deal with the hard issues instead of sweeping them under the rug or using back channels to resolve them.

My recommendation to managers is to be a vocal opponent to passive aggressive behavior. Call it out when you see it. Force people around you to be honest and forthcoming even when they may be uncomfortable doing so. It will showcase you as a leader and create better outcomes for the projects you participate in.

3.  Be the Integrative Thinker

Project teams often get stuck debating an artificially limited set of options. How often do you find yourself arguing the merits of two possible approaches as though they are the only alternatives available in the universe? It’s either option A or its option B and we’re going to sit here and debate it until we come to a decision. I fight against this whenever I can.

Just about every week I find myself in a meeting with a group of people arguing one option over another. I make it a point to take a different approach. Whenever it makes sense, I try to offer a third approach nobody has considered. Doing so gives me great power even when I don’t directly manage any of the people on the project team. I’ll often ask a question like?

Are we sure there isn’t another approach we haven’t considered?

Why are we assuming it has to be A or B?

What if we did neither?

On the surface, these questions may seem to be obtuse or unproductive. But I find, in most cases, they can be the source for a breakthrough when a team has been overly focused on a fixed set of options. Reopening the conversation to entertain new ideas can be a real source of power since it reframes the entire process and pulls the team out of a rut. Integrative thinking like this is a skill possessed by most great leaders and is an important weapon to have in your arsenal. It’s something I specifically look for in management candidates I interview.

By playing the role of the integrative thinker on a project team you can take a leadership position even though you have no legitimate right to it.

4. Build the Project Framework

This one is a bit more tactical than the others, but its valuable nonetheless. When I’m operating on a project team, I try to take on the task of building the structure or framework for the ultimate deliverable. To be clear, I’m not talking about the project plan. I want no part in that. Managing the project plan is not leading, its supportive. I want to be the one building out the framework for the presentation or the strategy or the deliverable we’re working on. I want to build the basic story that others contribute into. I want to play the role of managing editor vs. contributor.

Two very positive outcomes arise from building the framework and acting as the editor. First, you assume control for the basic quality of the deliverable without having to be responsible for all the individual pieces of work inside of it. This means you can set yourself and the team up for success without killing yourself. The second benefit is that when you build the framework that others contribute into, you assume a powerful leadership role in the group even though they don’t report into you. The framework becomes your power.

My recommendation to managers participating in multi team projects is to volunteer to build out the skeleton or structure or framework for whatever you’re working on. I rarely get resistance to this. Then have someone else project manage the various contributions into it.

Becoming a great leader is a lifelong journey we all have to take. Leading is especially hard when you have no legitimate or organizational power over the people you’re trying to lead. I hope these tips will help you the next time you find yourself trying to be a leader on a cross functional project with a bunch of people you don’t manage directly.

>>> The multi team project is another perfect use case for a 30 60 90 day plan. If you haven’t picked it up already, I highly recommend grabbing my 30 60 90 day plan template for Managers. It’s got a ton of extra content in it from the generic template. It’s the perfect tool to create visibility and alignment for your projects, and ensure your boss and other stakeholders define success in the same way you do.

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