Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Leading When You're Not the Boss

I've spent most of my career leading without authority. First it was as a business development professional, guiding people in key sales pursuits or on major proposal efforts. Later I was charged with leading several corporate strategic initiatives, from overhauling the firm's project management practices to improving client service to implementing a behavioral safety process. That role continues, now as an outside consultant.

Most A/E firms have several people responsible for leading important efforts with no direct authority over the people they lead. This is often the byproduct of a matrix organization, where leaders of technical disciplines, or practice areas, or nonbillable functions, or strategic initiatives, must engage coworkers in achieving critical goals simply by their influence. If this describes your situation, here are some tips from my accumulated experience in such a role:

Communicate a compelling vision. There is a universal yearning for betterment. Can you capture team goals in a vision that attracts and energizes others? A strong vision should encompass: (1) why we’re doing this, (2) how this benefits both team members and the firm, and (3) what this future state will look like. In casting a vision that persuades, you will want to appeal both to others’ emotions and logic.

Clarify roles and responsibilities. Assuming the vision attracts, team members still want to know what’s expected of them in that pursuit. Role definition is a crucial step in gaining people’s buy-in. Does it look like a good fit? How valued is their contribution to the effort? And, of course, the really important question: How much time will this require?

Budget team members’ time. This is one of the most important, yet overlooked, aspects of building a “volunteer workforce” in a company. Given our industry’s focus on billable hours, people will be particularly interested in knowing how much this effort might impact their personal utilization. The answer: Usually, not at all. That's because their time is budgeted from a portion of the nonbillable hours that already exist.

Manage the effort like a project. A/E firms generally do a poor job of managing nonbillable hours, in large part because they don’t fully appreciate their value. Think of nonbillable time as “investment time.” It’s where most improvement efforts will come from. Like projects, you should define the scope, tasks, schedule, budget, deliverables, standards, and metrics necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

Build your team with advocates. Change guru John Kotter recommends creating a network that works in parallel with but outside the organizational hierarchy. That’s because the typical structure is designed to maintain, not change. A network approach also allows you to build out the team prominently with people who have bought in. A common problem with change/improvement efforts is that they are staffed with people selected because of their position in the organization, not because of their advocacy for the cause.

But also enlist some key influencers. Hopefully the initiative you’re leading was launched with senior management support. In any case, the backing of key influencers within the firm will greatly help your progress. Kotter calls this a “guiding coalition,” and found in his research that the credibility of this group was critical to initiative success. Solicit visible endorsements of the effort from these established leaders.

Learn who in the hierarchy you can count on. There will be times, of course, when you must engage managers in the organizational structure (e.g., when taking the effort to each department or office). It’s helpful to recognize which of these individuals can be trusted to do their part in advancing the effort. If you can work around them, or wait to engage them after more momentum has been created, you can avoid some of the inevitable organizational inertia.

Pilot the effort at a smaller scale first. The objective in this case is to tackle problems at a more manageable level and score a few smaller victories. Demonstrated success often invigorates change initiatives, stimulating more buy-in and participation. So start with those groups, departments, or offices where there is greater chance of early success. Then gradually expand the effort across the organization as appropriate.

Minimize the use of delegated authority. Assuming you have senior management support for your initiative, it will likely be tempting at times to seek their intervention in forcing acquiescence from noncompliers. But this has the same effect as it would if you exerted your own authority to push participation. Some heavy-handed measures may be necessary to bring some outliers into the fold, but they should be used as a last resort. That's because want-to is far more productive than have-to. Seek to influence and negotiate rather than coerce.

Develop your relevant expertise. You don’t need to be the consummate expert to lead an initiative (such as me leading a project management improvement initiative, as I've done several times), but you do need to demonstrate you know what you’re doing. Do your homework and learn as much about the subject matter as possible. You certainly want to be able to articulate why this is the right vision and the best approach for achieving the desired results.

Celebrate small victories. It’s recommended that you set intermediate milestones, spaced no further apart than 4 to 6 months, so you can more easily maintain a sense of progress. Acknowledge and celebrate successes, even small ones. It helps sustain momentum.

Lead by example. Ideally, you should be the hardest worker on your team. Your passion should be contagious. Your personal power as a leader comes more by what people see in you than what you say. In fact, your leadership credibility will be seriously damaged if you’re not living out what you’re espousing.

For more on this topic, see "Why Leaders Are Way Better Than Bosses"

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