Migrating birds take turns being the leader

 

You are called to lead laterally all the time. You may need to negotiate the division of tasks with a colleague. You may need to align on strategy with another department. Or you have an idea that can help the business, but a different team needs to implement it.

Leading your peers feels a lot harder than leading your direct reports. Many executives struggle to influence effectively across the organization.

To understand how can executives lead laterally, I turned to Petros Oratis, one of the world’s experts on the topic. Oratis has been doing extensive research, including his doctoral thesis, on lateral leadership. He is also the co-founder of Lateral Space, a lateral leadership consultancy.

Why is it so hard to lead your peers?

I asked Oratis for the reasons it is so hard to lead laterally. He explained that it requires a lot more sophistication and effort to be collaborative than to be competitive. Also, the key barrier is fear.

When we hesitate to take a leadership role amongst our peers, we are usually afraid of:

  • Being held accountable for what we suggest.
  • Failing to convince our peers and therefore damaging our self-esteem.
  • Being seen as a self-promoter, being envied, or being rejected by the group.
  • Stepping on someone’s toes or getting into conflict.

No wonder we hesitate. There is always a risk when you step up. To lead laterally and help your company and career in the process, you need to surpass psychological and sociological barriers.

How do you know that your team is avoiding lateral leadership?

Oratis explained that there are three types of avoidance of lateral leadership: invisible, visible, and socially acceptable. There can be invisible avoidance when team members are unanimous and never engage in productive conflict. Or, they may postpone decisions so they do not have to take part in uncomfortable discussions.

Team members can avoid lateral leadership visibly by always escalating to the boss. Or by arguing that there is no reason to collaborate.

Finally, there are the socially acceptable ways to avoid lateral leadership. Asking people to vote or flipping a coin can be a sign of avoidance. Rather than having the experts convince their peers, the team is trying to jump to a decision quickly, as it feels more comfortable.

Do you recognize any of these lateral leadership avoidance behaviors happening in your team? What is the cost on the quality of your decisions?

How do you get better at leading without authority?

When I worked at Google, I was a member of the global sales team. I would agree with my global clients on the projects, and then I would have to convince the local Google sales teams to execute.

There was a challenge. The local teams did not report to me. There was no option to escalate as our hierarchies were meeting one level below Google’s CEO. What’s more, Google had a bottom-up culture favoring the local teams. There was an inherent resistance towards “global” telling you what to do. So, if I wanted to be successful, I had to master leading without authority.

Here are some tips I have seen work and could be useful to you:

  • Understand the other person’s agenda. How can you position your ideas in the prism of your peers’ agenda? When I pitched a project to my local counterparts, I would always position it as something that would help them rather than me. I explained how it would save them time, open doors, or boost their revenue.
  • Focus on a higher purpose. Sometimes what you suggest may go against the individual interest of your colleague. In that case, you need to focus the discussion on the higher purpose for the organization. Sometimes we all need to take one for the team and we will be happy to do it if we believe that the team’s purpose matters.
  • Build trust and strong relationships with your peers. What I learned at Google, was that dedicating time to build a relationship with my local peers from the first day, was worth it. I would travel to meet them in person, or I would invite them to offsites. The more you reveal of yourself and the more you keep your word, the more trust you build. People will not do what you ask them to do if they do not trust you.
  • Recognize organizational conflict. Many times, an organization pursues two contradictory objectives at the same time. The individuals get entangled in conflicts that are not personal but belong to the organization — product against sales, marketing against legal, etc. By drawing attention to the organizational conflicts and paradoxes, you can team up with your peers to solve the issue. You do not have to let the issue come between you.
  • Retain a 60/40 balance between being a peer and being a team lead. I learned this by Oratis, as this is what he recommends to his clients. I started sharing this rule with the teams I coach. They were surprised initially as this was the opposite of what they thought they should be doing. But, after they reflected, they got it. If you can influence the strategic decisions that the team you are a member makes, you help your direct reports best.

Conclusion

Leading without authority is one of the essential skills to master to get things done in any organization. In this article, we explored why you may find it hard to influence your peers. We looked into how you can spot when a team avoids lateral leadership. And we reviewed some tips on how to become more successful at leading your peers.

By looking outside the boundaries of your role and your department and leading laterally, you can have more impact on your organization and your industry. I would love to hear your stories about what you have achieved leading without authority in the comments.

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