Leading without Authority: Advice from Tia

For Tia, her first major leadership opportunity was to guide a group of peers to develop and execute a new strategy for getting more cooperatives to place their product on front shelf of the stores.  Tia’s leaders were impressed at her ability to get her peers focused and aligned on a single successful strategy that improved product placement in 72% of the retail cooperatives.

Typical of the first leadership opportunity, Tia did not get a raise or get the authority to go along with her increased responsibilities and accountabilities.  After a short time, I spoke with Tia to see what she learned about herself and success at leading this team that I could share with you.

Don’t pretend you have power.  While Tia was personally asked and put in charge of the strategy development team, she did not try to turn this into authority. She did not try to use the authority of her supervisor to enforce her own ideas or to get others to behave in a certain way. Doing this, Tia indicated, would have been disingenuous as everyone already knew that she could not hold them accountable for their performance in this group.

Rather Tia, transferred the power from her supervisor to the team. She allowed the group to do what they wanted with their mandate. Naturally, they were making their own power-plays in the often highly animated meetings. Tia knew her role was to hold the purpose of the group (a strategy and execution to improve product placement) and she knew that she needed to manage the group dynamics. Tia had authority on how the outcome was achieved, not on the outcome itself. By not trying to be the authority on the outcome and rather representing the process, she built trust with the peers. In turn, everyone respected that she was responsible and accountable for delivering an outcome in which all of these peers were bought in. This helped the group self-police internal power struggles. Tia indicated that often she was a ‘referee who called very few fouls’.

Require active listening of everyone. Tia understood that she was not asked to lead the team because she had better product placement strategies than her peers. Sure, Tia had her own ideas, but her team leadership role did not give her ideas any more weight than her peers. Tia was chosen to lead this group for other reasons. Among them was that Tia was an excellent listener. Tia is such a good listener that she was open to new ideas herself, but she knew how to make sure that others in the group were listening too. In these meetings, Tia actively demonstrated good listening by mirroring, by summarizing, by asking open ended questions and probing for clarity. As the process leader, she required that others do this before making declarative, especially disagreeable, statements. When Tia held true to the value of listening to one another, she gained the respect that is required for effective informal authority.

Serve others so they can do the work. Tia was not able to self-identify this last aspect of her success as a differentiator. (It was so natural that she did not see it as an option. I would also credit her supervisor who also has this mentality.) Tia saw her role to the team as the servant. When information was missing, she sought it out. When clarity was needed, she asked leadership the tough questions. Tia made sure she knew and could communicate leadership expectations to the group. She helped individuals be successful in their individual commitments to the team by following up to make sure they were on track and to hold them accountable (this is a positive service when you are willing to help when they are not on track).

With the kind of success this group achieved, Tia is on her way to getting that formal group leadership role that comes with the authority (and salary). However, Tia learned from her leadership-without-authority-experience that she could get a team to align and execute without the authority, and that in fact, she may be more successful without it. Leading with authority is a different kind of challenge.