Most leadership books don’t address in detail how to lead across boundaries because that used to be the job of a few top executives. Today, middle managers and individual contributors regularly find themselves in leadership roles that cross groups, companies and ecosystems. This is what I call working wider.
Working wider means that formal power is much less useful and rarely available. Overlapping peer-to-peer relationships are replacing hierarchy as the new context for work. Creating, combining and managing knowledge is the primary content. For many readers, this in itself is not a news flash. The problem is that while the context and content of work has changed most of our current practices still reflect our industrial legacy. We need to groom leaders differently.
Our new leadership models should evolve from knowledge rich institutions and ecosystems such as universities, professional service firms and Open Source networks. Leaders in these domains know that telling their highly trained people how to do their job is not their job. They lead through what Joseph Nye refers to as soft power since the amount of formal and coercive authority at their disposal is far less than one finds on the shop floor.
Leaders make their mark in two ways. First, they achieve results. Second, these results are superior to competitors. While the devil resides in the details, no one sails to victory by just managing details. As Cisco CEO John Chambers states, leaders excel by sighting and catching the next wave of opportunity. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove referred to these opportunities as inflection points.
Apple’s sequential introduction of the iPod, iPhone and soon to-be-released iPad provides a graphic example of catching successive waves in the marketplace. Former Procter and Gamble CEO Art Lafley demonstrated the same leadership internally by shifting from exclusively developing new products in P&G labs to their 50-50 partnership with external innovators under “Connect & Develop.”
Catching a wave or sighting an inflection point depends on how well a leader understands and tunes their efforts to the competitive context. It’s not easy. Champion Formula One drivers who moved to NASCAR haven’t been successful under NASCAR’s more contentious “if you ain’t rubbing, you ain’t racing,” norms. Working wider changes what leaders must consider in five ways.
In the past, internal issues, people and politics dominated decision making. Today, external factors represent a much higher proportion of influence. Second, because of this, leaders need more sensors (internal and external) and they must be checked more frequently. Third, extracting accurate meaning from sensor data is as complex as predicting the weather. The combination of nationalities, languages, corporate cultures, technical disciplines and markets defy accurate prediction. Fourth, less predictability increases the demand for leaders who handle surprises well versus those who specialize in running a smooth internal ship. Today’s annual plans provide a departure point rather than an operational blueprint for success.
Last and worthy of special attention is the evolving relationship between leaders and followers. Today’s leaders nurture orbits of overlapping relationships with only limited abilities to direct a few players. While leadership has always been a shared and interdependent relationship between leaders and followers, the innate dependency of followers on leaders for resources, advice and approval has fallen significantly. People come to work with far more understanding how business and value creation work. The depth of expertise each person brings as well as the ability to reach out to others makes them their own gatekeepers. Even financial support can come from external sources such as the $465 million loan Tesla Motors received from the government.
At the same time the range of human interaction has mushroomed. 24/7 work worlds and family life are constantly intertwined. Just look at the evolution and source of new communication tools. Companies have adopted consumer inspired, social networking tools (e.g. Twitter, Yammer, blogs and LinkedIn) and dialed back top down corporate announcements and memos. Video conferencing and virtual team rooms foster peer-to-peer working relationships from home offices as well as conference rooms. The dramatic expansion of women in the workplace has raised the importance of social and emotional intelligence relative to the more driven and singular work focus of men. Bosses still matter but now they are looked to as peers who have some distinct roles and responsibilities. Being a boss didn’t automatically make you a leader before but now the bridge is even wider.
A relic of the old industrial model that’s alive and well is the language of “leaders and followers”. Peer-to-peer argues for a new citizenship where yesterday’s followers have distinct capabilities combined with local and global responsibilities. What defines a leader at any particularly moment depends on the goals, context and issues at hand. It’s just as important that our new citizens step up to leadership roles when necessary as it is that anointed leaders step aside. This is by no means a continuous global scrum. Like Google, it’s modeled after a university or consultancy that operates based on needs and applicable knowledge. Leaders help others forge meaning and results through relationships based on contribution; not title and position. These new leaders inspire “everyday heroes” to replace the epic heroic figures of the past.
The peer-to-peer world is reinforced by electronic communications which democratize relationships and increase access regardless of rank or distance. Unlike traditional memos, these tools have eternal memory that never let an email die or blog post fade. You can bet that you will be Google’ed and Facebook’ed by anyone with whom you’re called upon to work. Transparency means no one knows you’re a dog but everyone knows what kennel you’re from and what you did there.
All this adds up to a new context where leaders and citizens pay much more attention to attracting and nurturing relationships that sustain attention. Think of attention as the wider world’s equivalent of commitment. Since compelling people to follow is no longer an option, we need to groom leaders who will:
- Help others make sense of competitive complexity
- Frame opportunities that attract over distance
- Reach each citizen with a compelling return for their engagement
- Nurture and evolve a community that holds attention
- Fuel success through tangible results
- Leverages effort with the minimum viable tools and controls
- Enforce norms of openness, trust and citizen accountability
Peer-to-peer has tremendous potential and the traits you list would make it easier for the ‘citizen-leader’ to take advantage of them. Leaders have long known, for example, that there was mileage in leveraging their subordinate’s knowledge, but many still do not know how to leverage the knowledge their subordinates have access to through their networks.
Too frequently, the focus is on the perceived risk of losing control, rather than the risk of not getting access to the knowledge. It is a repeat of the arguments for not engaging social media.
The best near-term solution may be to get these leaders to do no harm. Far too many firms clamp down on communication that doesn’t run through “proper channels”. To paraphrase the old saying, if they can’t lead, perhaps they need to get out of the way.
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