Imagine that you’re reaching out to someone across a small divide, like a creek. You put out your arm, perhaps trying to help the other person to cross. You’re trying to maintain a solid footing on your side of the creek, and trying not to fall in by leaning too far across. It requires agility to maintain your balance while leaning across to connect with someone else. It requires knowing how far to flex.
Leading across the organization also requires agility to be able to navigate the competing priorities, personalities, and emotions involved with collaboration while maintaining a clear focus on your own priorities. We use the term “lateral agility” to describe this leadership skill. In martial arts and other sports, lateral agility is defined as “the ability to change direction and move side to side quickly while maintaining your balance.” In the business context, it’s about building meaningful relationships to explore and solve enterprise problems while flexing to meet the needs of the moment and styles of colleagues – all without losing focus on vertical leadership fundamentals.
Leading across differs from vertical leadership in some significant ways:
- It’s more of a pull (facilitating, listening with curiosity) than push (being clear, inspiring direction to your goal).
- It requires stepping out of the functional context (aka “turf”) in which a leader usually operates, into parts of the organization where you’re not an expert and have limited positional power.
- There aren’t clear-cut rules of the road, so social capital matters more than formal leadership.
- The goals are sometimes more fuzzy, involving enterprise-wide initiatives with no clear solution. And those goals may not be clearly aligned with the other’s priorities.
This all requires maintaining our balance in the face of competing interests and sometimes strong personalities and emotions. It’s easy to get thrown off balance when someone disagrees with us or when we hit a roadblock.
So how do we maintain our balance to lead across effectively?
BALANCING COMPETING INTERESTS
We typically “grow up” in our careers in a particular field such as engineering or finance. That’s the natural lens through which we view the organization and what needs to be done. We are valued for our functional expertise. And yet, that expert mindset can get in the way of being a successful enterprise leader. We have found that it’s at the Director level that leaders are most often finding the need to expand the aperture of their focus and look at a broader view of the enterprise. That requires curiosity about someone else’s priorities, constraints and capacity.
To be able to scale, we need to understand the interdependencies, and ensure that partners in other departments understand ours as well. For example, if the Product group decides to create 15 new products, engineering needs to scale with them (and they may have a few other priorities on their plate). It requires the alignment of goals and coordination of efforts.
So what does this entail?
- Developing and communicating an initial vision of what “better” looks like that is framed within the broader company vision. It also should include a clear problem statement, e.g., develop a new interface to enhance the customer experience of a key market segment which was identified in a recent customer survey as being frustrated with having to navigate our current site.
- Incorporating others’ input – this is important – success isn’t getting a key stakeholder to accept your initial proposal, it’s about getting them engaged with their own ideas so that they become an implementation partner. This is not just about “influencing” or getting others to see your way.
- Facilitate roadblocks as they arise. When there is conflict between two seemingly conflicting goals, one approach is to reframe the question you’re trying to answer to incorporate both goals at the same time. Such as, “How might we meet the needs of this key market segment with the resources we currently have without falling behind on our other deliverables?” Sometimes competing priorities prove intractable and need to be escalated to a third (more senior) manager. To avoid that becoming a political battle of personal persuasion, it’s better to collaborate on a “clean escalation,” which Fred Kofman describes as each party rationally explaining how their solution will benefit the broader organizational goal (not just their functional goal) to a more senior manager with (hopefully) a broader enterprise view.
FOCUSING ON ISSUES AND THE PEOPLE
Balancing competing interests is easier when you (and they) don’t feel that you’re competing personally. One way to avoid that is to establish trust with cross-enterprise partners upfront. This can be a particular challenge when you’re new to the organization, or after lay-offs or a reorganization when you may not have the existing relationships. Recently, a Director of Security at a leading tech company explained, “I came here after more than ten years at my former company, where people knew me and trusted me to get things done. It’s harder here because I don’t have that track record.”
We advise leaders to create a stakeholder strategy. Who are the people and groups you and your team need to be able to achieve your objectives? How would you rate the quality of each of those relationships?
Researchers Zenger and Folkman have identified three core components to establishing trust:
1. Positive relationship: Do you understand what’s important to them? Their constraints? Do you have more than just a transactional relationship with them?
2. Competence: Do they see you as competent, with expertise that is beneficial to the organization? Are you seen as having good judgment, someone who can solve problems?
3. Consistency: Do you do what you say you’ll do?
As a Director of Regional Delivery for a fast-growth tech firm (who had a reputation as a strong enterprise partner) explained “It’s important to make a personal connection with people. I’m not saying I need to know all their problems. It’s an extra level of appreciation for who a person may be.” This is how to develop trust.
When you’re new, be purposeful about accelerating those connections. When you’re the person who’s been around awhile, increase your own value by helping others make those connections. Through relationships with partners, you’re better able to balance your goals with theirs.
MANAGING STRONG EMOTIONS
Even when we focus on both the issues and the people, and work to balance competing interests, we all occasionally get triggered in conversations with partners. When we are criticized or hear bad news, or even when we have to let go of things that we care about when collaborating and negotiating, it can cause us to be triggered and “lose our balance” in the conversation.
This can show up in our bodies before it shows up in our consciousness, and manifests as a fight, flight, or freeze response. We all have natural responses (it may vary depending on the context). Fight in a corporate setting often looks like stopping another from talking, raising one’s voice, and blaming others. Flight often looks like disengagement behavior, including leaning back, looking away, ignoring what someone is saying, turning off their camera and “spacing out.” Freeze may involve someone’s mind going blank, and not being able to speak coherently.
The key is to recognize stress patterns in the moment, first in yourself then in others, and be able to shift if it serves you and the situation. Sometimes, however, this is easier said than done,
Other approaches are to anticipate and plan for challenging situations. Are you meeting with someone who you find challenging? Practice some responses to likely scenarios beforehand. How do you want to show up in front of them? In front of others? What kind of reaction will help you make progress on your goal (or at least not lose ground)? For example, if you know you’re likely to be interrupted, you can plan to say, “I want to hear your thoughts, but I’d appreciate your hearing me out first.” If you think it’s likely that they’ll say no to the big ask, are there some smaller asks you can have as a back-up?
You may also consider whether what you’re asking may potentially be stepping on their, or their group’s, toes, and thus likely to incur a defensive reaction. For example, a Director of Data Management at a biotech company discovered that asking researchers for results data was often met with suspicion by scientists who saw this as a threat to their autonomy. She found that she had to work on establishing trusting relationships, and be very clear about the reason she needed the data to gain support. Researcher Lisa Kwan identifies key barriers to cross-enterprise collaboration as anything perceived as a threat to their group’s identity, autonomy or legitimacy.
When things are a little heated, the best approach is to switch to live or video-based communication, per UC Berkeley Professor, Juliana Schroeder. Schroeder’s research team asked 300 participants to read, watch or listen to an opposing point of view. They found that participants who listened or watched someone communicate a competing position were more open to the other point of view and reacted more warmly to the individual, than they did to a written communication. In our age of mostly digital communication, it’s important to recognize that hearing someone’s tone and personalizing our communications often make us much more effective communicators. Sometimes an asynchronous video may be sufficient, but sometimes a live video call (or a stroll down the hallway) is what you need.
Making those overtures, understanding others’ goals and constraints, being intentional about developing key relationships and managing the complexity that stems from people working together is what the balancing act is all about. And by reaching out and maintaining your balance, you’re modeling the way for others. It’s not always easy, but important enterprise solutions can’t be accomplished any other way. And the best enterprise leaders know it.