How to Lead Without Authority

How to Lead Without Authority

For many leaders, the desire for power and authority doesn’t come from the need to collect direct reports as a status symbol, but from the belief that they need authority over others to get work done or to make decisions. The complex environments of modern organizations, however, require leaders to work across functions, where they cannot rely upon authority to make things happen. Successfully leading diverse teams requires new skills and performance standards—as well as new ways of thinking about power and control.

In short, control is out; collaboration is in. (But authority still has its place.)

This article addresses critical internal shifts for leading and working across functions and segments of an organization without authority.

Life After Restructure: When Authority Disappears

Roger* presided over an 800-person division of a global publication company. A new CEO implemented a company-wide restructure to unify their regional operations. Under the new structure, the sales, marketing and customer-service teams previously embedded in specific product lines now served geographic regions. Roger retained accountability for meeting his product division’s sales targets, but the support teams he had relied on no longer reported to him.

At the recommendation of a colleague in organizational development, Roger met with Cathy Cassidy, Managing Director of the Matrix Management Institute. “In our first meeting, he was worried about meeting his P&L targets,” she recalls. “He kept talking about his former team reporting elsewhere.” Cassidy shifted the conversation from reporting relationships and business functions to processes, like market analysis, product development, sales and service. How had the process changed? Once he stopped focusing on lines of authority, Roger had an “a-ha” moment: it didn’t matter who reported to whom; they all needed to work together toward their common goal.

Roger retained MMI to train his leadership team, including several people who now reported elsewhere. “During that first session, I ripped up the org chart in front of them,” says Cassidy. “We talked about the fact that it didn’t matter where they worked or lived; they all had to run this together. And they got it. What’s more, they were excited.” She guided the team through experiential exercises to show them how to shift from the perspective of their respective functions to an integrated approach based on the horizontal process.
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Roger then extended the training to his next level of leadership and other key stakeholders. He didn’t tell anyone what to do. Instead, he presented his approach and invited participation as equal partners in a shared mission. Would they send representatives and attend the meeting?

Sixty-five people attended the training session, which revealed the need for better integration throughout the process. Attendees volunteered to participate in governance councils that would provide guidance for Roger’s function. “In designing the teams,” Cassidy says, “we needed to represent the products offered in the product line, the different customers and the different geographies, but we couldn’t have a member of every product or country on the team. The team—not Roger—designed the solution. Then, those leaders, including people who didn’t report to Roger, ran a segment of the business as a team. The entire process constantly reinforced that it doesn’t matter where you report; you need to run the business together.”

Moving forward, the governance councils set priorities for the teams, each of which managed a portfolio of work. One team, for instance, made decisions about new products, and another managed the portfolio that improved existing products. Through collaboration, the group reached faster decisions, allocating resources to top priorities, and completing projects faster. Other teams managed other business segments, such as sales and customer service. By focusing on shared accountability—instead of on individual functions and formal reporting relationships—Roger’s division learned to operate as a cohesive organization.

Managing Across Functions: No Centralized Authority

As a senior marketing director for a consumer electronics retailer, Lisa* was asked to oversee development of a new digital marketing platform. The complex project involved not only marketing, but also several other departments—including e-commerce and information technology—where she had no authority. Having previously worked with MMI to provide collaborative project management training to her immediate team, Lisa secured permission to offer the same training to a larger, cross-functional group.

Lisa invited two dozen stakeholders from multiple departments to participate in an optional, three-day planning session. Cassidy launched the training by introducing the concepts behind collaborative project management, presenting each in the specifics of the project at hand. Participants learned about the tools and techniques in the context of their current challenge.

Cassidy then guided the team members through an interactive planning process, which showed the interdependencies across the workflow. Participants gathered around whiteboards and co-created a plan for the platform development. Together, the team defined the project scope and identified deliverables for each stage of development; they discussed and debated options at every step to identify the best decisions. By the session’s end, the group had developed the framework for an integrated plan that showed the project’s progression across the various departments.

Lisa spent the following weeks helping project teams from multiple disciplines to develop clear deliverables for each sub-project. Like the group planning session, these meetings also relied upon collaboration, with Lisa acting as a facilitator and coach. The teams mapped their specific responsibilities for implementing the integrated project plan. Using collaboration tools and techniques allowed each group to see how their efforts impacted other project teams and how they contributed to the final outcome.

Clear, proactive communication helped keep the project on track. Instead of waiting for their colleagues to request resources, for instance, teams would ask what resources were required. Then, the teams would confirm the specifics of the request, including what was needed and when. Creating clarity around project handoffs up front helped build trust among team members. In addition, open communication helped eliminate the surprises that often derail project schedules, and the teams met their timelines.

Because of the massive scope of the project, Lisa tasked two members of her team with taking the lead on critical components. She discovered that those teams came together in a different way, staying focused and on track as they followed the collaboration tools and processes. Ultimately, Lisa began excusing herself from meetings. She saw that the teams were advancing the work on their own, without micromanagement.

Five months after the initial planning session, the organization introduced the new platform, a smooth rollout free from the frantic scrambling that typically accompanied launches. The project’s success was recognized with a company award, and many team members ranked their collaborative work on the platform among the year’s top achievements.

Leading Without Authority

The concept of leading without authority has been around for years, but many leaders resist ceding the authority they have worked so hard to achieve—specifically, authority over people and authority to make decisions.

How did Roger and Lisa guide their respective challenges to successful conclusions, despite having no authority over many of the participants?

Both individuals had built successful careers based on business acumen and leadership skills. Even so, they recognized their personal limitations in overcoming the complex challenges before them and relinquished the traditional view of leadership as “having all the answers.” They turned to their teams and secured their support by:

  • Creating a shared vision
  • Providing clear direction
  • Building momentum

Create a Shared Vision

Roger and Lisa secured the support of team members by co-creating a shared vision. To start, they abandoned the command-and-control approach and instead invited other stakeholders to join them. Recognizing the importance of collaboration in overcoming their complex challenges, they cultivated partnerships in their respective organizations.

Many leaders pay lip service to partnerships, yet they continue to wield power in the relationship. In a true partnership, both parties have equal status, which allows them to work toward a solution where everyone wins.

Roger shared his plan and asked others to join the training, which would help them reach their collective goals for the division. The training reinforced the partnership in its opening exercise, which challenged participants to arrange items in the tallest configuration. The groups monitored peers’ progress as they worked on their own projects. When the exercise ended, the facilitator announced that they had all lost. Their individual group efforts fell short of what they could have achieved by combining their resources and working together.

Similarly, Lisa extended an opportunity for colleagues to join her team in optional training. Participants immediately applied collaboration tools and techniques to map a plan for their joint initiative. Brightly colored sticky notes allowed individuals to see how they contributed to the final outcome, and the co-creation process generated an emotional investment and commitment to the plan they had developed.

Provide Clear Direction

One of the main challenges that modern organizations face is the dynamic nature of the operating environment. With so many moving parts, companies need to make good decisions quickly, often without having all facts in hand. Navigating this complex environment requires leaders to delegate decision-making to the correct level and to set priorities.

Both leaders discussed in this article recognized the need to cede decision-making and day-to-day management. They brought in training programs to provide tools that would drive consistent collaboration across teams. Teaching collaborative decision-making processes in the context of a real-world challenge helped eliminate the highly subjective approach that individuals naturally apply to decisions. Everyone began using the same tools and speaking the same language, which made decision-making transparent for group members and for senior leadership when selling recommendations within the organization. Roger and Lisa used training to create the framework that would guide decisions at every level.

As a division president, Roger needed to establish priorities that would integrate the multiple processes for which he was accountable. The governance councils used collaborative tools to set group priorities, which kept the various business segments aligned to the larger division goals.

These two executives provided the tools and framework to help their teams realize shared goals. Then, they stepped back and trusted their partners to accomplish the mission.

Of course, authority still came into play on occasion. Sometimes teams simply could not achieve consensus. In such cases, leaders needed to exercise authority and make a decision to keep the process moving forward. But in this collaborative environment, authority became a last resort, not a standard operating procedure.

Build Momentum

Lack of integration is a common stumbling block in large organizations and complex projects. Critical information often gets lost at the handoffs. For instance, product development teams may move forward without understanding the full implications of the research-and-development report. Marketing and sales may forge ahead with their respective product strategies without a full briefing from the development team.

To eliminate the disconnects that often occur between departments and functions, Roger and Lisa implemented weekly meetings with key stakeholders. Each representative provided progress reports, in addition to discussing resources required from other groups. The training had established the ground rules for having these productive conversations. Just as important, Roger and Lisa had fostered a safe space for team members to speak openly about what was happening in their respective areas. When issues arose—as they invariably do—the group directed their creative efforts toward developing win-win solutions in service of their shared vision, a productive approach that bears little resemblance to the blame game that typically follows admission of a problem.

This free flow of information served several critical purposes. First, ongoing communication eliminated unpleasant surprises, so the team could reallocate resources as needed to stay on track. Also, these exchanges built a sense of camaraderie among the team members, instilling a sense of pride as they worked toward a common purpose—even among outliers who were initially skeptical. Finally, frequent updates allowed the participants to see tangible progress each week as they moved closer to their goals. Each week’s successes helped generate momentum and a shared sense of achievement. No one wanted to be the stumbling block. So they banded together and crossed the finish line as a cohesive team—bound by collective accountability, rather than lines of authority.

Trust the Process

Both of these executives took a leap of faith in tackling their respective challenges. They knew the undertaking required an organized team effort, and they started the process by introducing training that would help teams move forward as a united whole. Even though they had confidence in the selected training, implementation still required courage and chasing away doubts.

“The tools work,” says Lisa. “Sometimes they’re uncomfortable, and you feel self-conscious because you force people out of their comfort zones. But people were collaborating and generating something far more powerful than any one individual could have. As a facilitator, my role was persevering. To help the teams move through, I had to be comfortable holding the tension and trust we’d get to the other side.”

*Names have been changed

Mistina Picciano

About Mistina Picciano

As Managing Editor of OD Innovator, Mistina Picciano combines her passions for communication and peak performance. She researches and writes about leading practices to help individuals and organizations realize their greatest potential.

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