How to lead a team when you’re not the boss


You're leading a conference call, talking project timelines, deliverables, and deadlines. You hang up, satisfied that you covered everything on your checklist. But some time later -- maybe minutes, days, or weeks -- you realize that no one had any intention of actually doing what you said.

Sound familiar? When you're leading a team from different departments or even a group of your peers, you're unlikely to see people blindly complying with your every request. Indeed, compliance isn't what you need from colleagues and subordinates -- you need ideas, willing collaboration, and participation.

How do you win that magic combination? It's not easy, and the inherent challenge may explain the results of a survey by training firm ESI International, which found a shortage of project managers at 83% of organizations surveyed. Or the 2012 Dale Carnegie study, which found that 26% of employees are disengaged and 45% are only partially engaged.

"Nobody cares about your deadlines; they care about the cause," says George Bradt, an executive coach and author of First-Time Leader. "You have to co-create a shared purpose and drive toward the cause, and they don't teach you that in school."

It's not about your ideas

The first step is to shift your perspective. Instead of devising plans to get people to do what you want, recognize that their ideas could be just as valuable as yours. Sure, you know the project's objectives and context inside and out. It's your job to convey the broader mission to them so they understand how their piece will fit into the whole.

"To do it right, you have to truly believe the people you're delegating to can do this better than you," Bradt says. "You have to give them very clear direction. You have to give them the resources, the training; then you have to let them do it."

That means listening to others' input at the beginning of a project, as well as throughout. "This isn't a one-time thing, this is a series of iterative conversations, and you must stick with it," he says.

Peter Bregman, an advisor to chief executive officers and leadership teams, says he once worked with an executive who led a $500 million business line and was having trouble getting what he felt he needed from the company's head of marketing. It turned out that the marketing head didn't feel respected or that his ideas were valued. The standoff was hurting both individuals and the overall business.

"No amount of posturing was going to get him to do what he wanted to do," Bregman says. "You can't leverage your power or get into an arm wrestle with the guy."

Build one-on-one relationships

You'll be more successful leading a team if you know your team members already and have strong relationships with them. Make a list of the five or 10 people in your work area or organization you're likely to be paired up with in the future. Get to know them.

"The most important thing is to develop strong relationships with people when you don't need them. The biggest leverage to get anything done is personal relationships," Bregman says.

Ask about their lives, share yours, offer to help them, and be a decent human being. As for those you have had trouble with in the past, now's the time to mend those relationships -- you're likely to be thrown together in the future.

If you're put into a leadership role and you don't know the team well, take the time to meet one-on-one with each person to find out their priorities and get to know them personally. If you can't meet face-to-face, video conferencing is the next best thing.

"Nobody wants to be a cog in your wheel," Bregman says. "The goal is to shift them from a line in your to-do list to a real relationship, to feel like you're two human beings working together."

The executive who was having trouble with his company's head of marketing took time to go out to dinner with him. Before long, they were collaborating well.

Include the entire group

When you're in charge, you may feel that you're supposed to have all the ideas and answers. In fact, your job is to harness the collective brainpower of your team for the good of the company.

That means asking for advice. People love to give advice; it makes them feel valued. "When you listen to their advice, not only do you get good ideas, but you build relationships," Bregman says.

Make sure to follow up afterwards. If you take a person's advice, let them know the outcome. If you decide on a different tack, explain why and what influence the person's opinion had upon you. Don't just drop the issue and hope he won't notice.

Through the course of a project, put the core mission front and center. Again, this shouldn't spring entirely from your brain but should emerge from a discussion with the entire team. "It's not about putting yourself in their shoes," says Bradt. "It's about inserting yourself into their hearts."

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