How to lead teams without authority

How to lead teams without authority

How to lead teams without authority

Very often as a leader, you are dependent on others to deliver results to you.  Your other initiatives depend on these results.  How do you motivate or drive people that do not directly report to you? How do you manage external partners who do not have any contractual obligations to you? How to lead teams without authority?

One such example is a global project.  While you can still manage a project, to deliver excellent results you must lead effectively.  In the diagram below, I have tried to describe the various components.  You as leader of the global project, have a project sponsor.  In simple terms this is the person or executive who can help you out when needed.

In one of my projects, I was having major difficulties with our external partner delivering on their side of the contract.  Granted that this was a complex project, but I got the feeling that they had oversold their product and were finding it difficult to deploy the required number of skilled resources to help us complete our project.  Since this was a niche product, it was not easy to find consultants in the market, who could come and resolve the issues (there were engineering issues as well as software issues).  Besides, it would be too expensive for us to roll the whole thing back and start from scratch with a new supplier.  To complicate things, the contract with this external partner was part of a separate “site” project.  The project I was leading was dependent on the site project delivering the functionality that would connect to the enterprise (global) solution that my project would deliver.  The end result was major delays on the site project which was also affecting timelines on my project.  Whenever there is a time overrun, there is a corresponding cost overrun as well.

I relocated myself to the site for several weeks, and had to personally engage four entities:

1. The site project team (who where happily passing all problems including the site ones to the “global” project),

2. The site management (who were busy with other important initiatives and were not alerted enough on this matter),

3. My own project team (who were awaiting directions from me) and

4. The external supplier’s project manager (who was based in Europe).

While this may be a project, there are a number of lessons learned that help in effectively leading teams especially when you have little to no authority over the other groups.

From a leadership perspective, this scenario helps understand the dynamics of team behavior, pain/incentive and control options to successfully achieve the end-result.  While you must still maintain your value system, clear understanding of task, clarity of roles and effective communications, there are a few things you can do in such a situation where you have to lead teams without authority.

In the image above, the blue dashed line separates the global project from the dependent site projects.  Both have to be completed for the final deliverable to be completed.

The grey solid arrows indicate direct control.  You either have control through a line of reporting, or through a contractual obligation.

The red lines indicate a lack of authority or control. 

The following are a few tips that can help you, as the global project leader, drive the site project to the mutually desired outcome:

Be seen, present and available

Your presence on-site is a great confidence booster to the local team.  They know that you can be approached.  It also shows that you have taken ownership and control of the situation. 

On the other hand, you can also see things for yourself, and judge the criticality of the situation.  Instead of getting secondhand information, you are now able to witness the issues and the pain-points at the ground-level.

Show ownership

By taking ownership, you are sending an implied message that you have a vested interest in getting the thing done.  Make sure the site team, the external partner and the site stakeholders are aware through daily reports (depending on the state of the project).

Cross boundaries

Once you are at the site, it would be silly to retain the boundaries between the global project (yours) and the site project.  Engage the site team to ensure that they pull their weight in areas where you or your team does not have the expertise.

Ensure that your reports capture these tasks, along with delivery dates and responsibilities.  The site management will then be able to help you get the site team’s support.

Engage appropriate authority levels

Engaging site management is very important.  Right from the beginning, and continuously, you must engage them, keep them apprised of the situation and what you are trying to do to get resolution.  You must also use their authority to escalate any problems that you may see.  Such problems could be either with the site team or with the external partner, who is contracted to the site.  The key thing for you is to find the person with the most pain (if the project is not delivered on time) and get his/her support.

Be mindful of the time you are demanding from site management, but also let them be aware of the high costs of project delay or non-completion.

Reduce/eliminate confrontation

Usually when things go sour, someone starts to finger-point.  Where there are multiple parties involved, self-protection mindset takes over and the blame game starts.

You as the leader of the global project cannot afford to have this spoil the team dynamics.  Whether external or internal, site or global, it takes all parties to work, support and deliver the end-result.  Of course, you can document all the lessons learned and also provide feedback to the erring person’s line manager, but for the moment, you do not want any disruption.

Use all conflict-resolution measures at your disposal to ensure that there is no disruption to the progress being made.

Use “if I were you”

Sometimes people just get stuck and welcome a different perspective.  Based on your analysis of the situation, feel free to provide suggestions as to how the other person should approach the problem.  I find that the “if I were you, I’d do ….” to be very useful.

Not only are you bringing in a different viewpoint, but you are also able to provide the global project perspective.  This educates the site team on subsequent activities dependent on their project that are not visible to them.

Sometimes this suggestion also helps to escalate the issue appropriately.  For example, I have used the statement, “If I were the CEO (of the external partner), I would deploy four people each possessing one of the four required skill-sets.  This will take the time zone, inefficiencies and remote communication out of the equation, and help us reach the goal faster”, to great effect.

Make them “own” the initiative, and you support them

This policy worked for my project.  On our end, we had all our activities developed, tested and ready to go.  The external partner was the one who had to complete their tasks.  When they got down to task, I ensured that they “owned” the initiative.  I ensure that I was present and available and could pull in my team whenever required for supporting or complementing the external partner’s activities.

We put up posters in the project bull-pen, stating “A-B war-room”, where “A” was the name of the external partner, and “B” was my company’s name.  By putting their name first, they had implied ownership.  Everyone could see the posters and the team was highly motivated.  The atmosphere in the project room was electrified a few notches and it was hard to miss.

Re-plan, look for plan B’s and keep looking for outcomes

The best laid plans will always need tweaking.  Sometimes, your most preferred result may not be forthcoming.  Then what do you?  Is a plan B possible?  You need to weigh in with your objectives, the site objectives and what is possible from your partners.

I like to say that one must keep looking for outcomes and carry out all those actions that move you forward towards the end-goal. 

Recognize that some things are simply too complex and need time to resolve

It could also be possible that the original plan and schedule was very aggressive.  It could be possible that the complexity of the task was not appropriately considered during initial planning.  When you are the site and able to witness things firsthand, you should pay attention to the complexity of the task.  Sometimes, by forcing things to be completed on an aggressive schedule, you risk diluting the quality of the output.

Always ask for (negotiate) more than you are willing to accept

 When you escalate problems to external partners, two things will happen.  Firstly, they will deny the situation and try to point to other things that may have caused the problems.  Secondly, they will attempt to provide small, incremental solutions (like sending over one person for a week, to let you know that you are being heard).

If you feel that there is a lot that is unknown, do not have faith in the resolution attempts promised thus far by the partner or feel that the task is highly complex, then ask for more than you are willing to accept.

In these situations you must demand a sledgehammer, when they tell you a hammer can do the job.

Unfortunately, I have seen the folly of going “one small step at a time” and then hoping for a good outcome, on multiple occasions.  It is better to bite the bullet and do it with a full team, than send one person at a time and die by a thousand cuts.

Ultimately you must be result-oriented (this is the hallmark of an “A” player.  Others simply perform tasks and ask for directions.  An “A” player delivers results).  Differentiate between activity and outcome.  Activity is good, but if does not lead towards the desired outcome, then consider other alternatives.

Image (c): Kay Leadership Academy

Author: Raj Subramanyam