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Tips for the Authorityless Leader

I was asked this question in a workshop recently.

In addition to my team in the company, I work with subcontractors. It’s like a team, but they don’t really report to me and they work for a completely different company. How can I be effective when I don’t have such limited authority?

This is a variation of the classic matrixed organization and it’s a situation that many project managers face. You’re responsible for the actions of people who do not report to you and it seems your success is based less on what limited authority you may possess and more on the amount of authority those subs want to grant you. And yes, they know that.

It’s a difficult but not impossible situation. In fact, these sorts of ad hoc teams are a great opportunity to practice real leadership skills. Experience in similar situations has taught me that the best approach is to set aside any feeling of position power or authority and strive for cooperation toward a common goal.

  1. Start by defining the purpose of the team. Rather than just saying something like, “We’re going to do X, Y, and Z,” form a mission or purpose statement about creating. “This team has been formed to create X, Y, and Z. It will be a thing of beauty. When we are finished people will come from far and wide to gaze in awe upon what we’ve created.” Okay, that’s a little over the top, but the point is to make the teams purpose more than just another boring project.
  2. Don’t be the leader who stands apart from their team. Accept that they probably don’t see you as anything special. But they do expect you to provide the support they need to get the job done.
  3. Let everyone on your team know what you believe. This isn’t a sermon but a short statement of your own values on which you will not compromise.
  4. Make sure every team member knows you understand their importance to the team. Don’t gush, but do recognize their contribution. This applies to everyone.
  5. Seek out, and genuinely listen to their ideas and suggestions. They are on the team because they have expertise in a certain area. Embrace that expertise.
  6. Keep lines of communication open and active. Don’t fall to the temptation to pay more attention to your own team within the company. Everyone must have an equal input.

Remember; leadership is getting things done through people and those people want to know they are seen as valuable to the team.  Put aside any thought of power and authority and think of your team as working with you, not for you.


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