Every workplace suffers from office politics. The remedy is to lead a team of your own creation. To lead others who do not necessarily report to you. In other words, to lead without authority.
You must awaken to the realization that for every goal you have, for every project or mission you have, you are responsible for leading a much broader group of people than the formal members of your team. The more ambitious the mission, the broader this group will be, and yet your leadership of this group must be as committed as it would be if each one of them were reporting to you.
Most of us feel a sense of loyalty and obligation to the formal teams we are assigned to, or that are assigned to us. We care about the people on our teams—at least, on good days. We support them and go to bat for them; we want them to succeed and grow. Now, as the work continues to shift toward more loosely organized cross-functional teams, we have to extend that same degree of care, concern, commitment, and camaraderie to all our new team members—even the people we don’t yet realize are on the team. It’s the only way to achieve extraordinary results.
When we lead without authority, we consider all the people who may be critical to us achieving our goals. And we enlist them as members of our team. It’s a unique opportunity to set aside the limits imposed by the resources you control, and instead consider the impact you want to make.
But where to start? What’s the mission? How can you elevate it? Perhaps you’re in sales and want to redesign how you go to market by bringing the product and marketing folks onto your team. Or there’s some sort of friction point between your department and another group and your goal is to eliminate it. Every company’s leadership needs its employees aiming as high as possible to create breakthrough solutions to meet new market pressures, and the only way to do this is to bring everyone who could contribute to your mission onto the team.
Here are some tips and best practices about how to get started co-elevating, how to build on early success, and how to best track and organize all your co-elevating teams.
“The resisters tend to come around once they start seeing results.”
1. Start Where It’s Easiest
Leading without authority doesn’t have to be hard. My advice, early on, is to find someone you think you’ll have a positive experience co-elevating with. Choose someone most likely to grasp the roughly outlined vision you think deserves your collective attention. Even better, I would encourage you to start building that co-elevating relationship before you need to. The more time you spend nurturing and building relationship ties with an associate you respect and think you may want to work with on something big, the easier it will be later to invite them to join you in taking on challenging and aspirational projects together.
Then shift your focus toward potential partners and new teammates who can help you to achieve positive momentum fast. Don’t waste too much time trying to convince resisters to join the fun. In our coaching of large-scale change, we find that when you build momentum with positive people first, the resisters tend to come around once they start seeing results.
2. Check Your Hot Button Priority
Sometimes, you have no choice. You need to start building your team in the midst of a crisis, when everyone feels they’re behind the eight ball.
So what’s stressing you out? What’s keeping you up at night? What’s occupying your headspace? Where can you introduce the co-elevation conversation as a potential solution? You will likely find that the very urgency of the situation will help you forge the bonds necessary for a productive co-elevating relationship.
3. Look for Those You Admire and Want to Learn From
On any given day, we bump into extraordinary people who could up our game and make us better at achieving our goals. In the next project meeting, instead of checking email or pondering what you’ll say when it’s your turn to report, pay attention and take note of who speaks up with the most interesting insights. Is there a project you can imagine co-creating with someone else you admire, not just for the project’s impact, but for the learning experience or to deepen the relationship? Does someone have special knowledge or a unique background you could learn from? Do you see someone who is a diamond in the rough, someone you feel is being underutilized by the company, someone who might become really energized if you came to them with an idea? If you are going to initiate real breakthrough ideas, who would be an ideal partner for such a mission? Well, go get them on your team.
Co-elevating with team members who work remotely is a challenge. You have to work a little harder to connect with them. Use conference calls or video calls as a way to introduce yourself to people you want to get to know better. Follow up with them with an individual call or meeting so you can talk without an agenda. I can’t tell you how rare it is for a team member on a call to follow up with remote members of the team when it’s not required. Take that extra step, and you will stand out.
4. Identify Someone You Believe Would Benefit from Your Help
All of us work with people who could improve their performance with the right guidance or encouragement. If you are truly committed to a mission or project and you find that someone’s performance is holding the group back, why not do what any good leader would do and coach them? Take responsibility for making a positive difference in that person’s career so you can make a positive difference toward the project or mission at hand.
When you open channels for discussion, active collaboration, and mutual development, you’ll be surprised what can follow. Co-elevating with a teammate not only allows your team to achieve more, it will also help you grow in your own performance and alleviate your own pent-up frustration, which no one needs to hold on to.
“Take that extra step, and you will stand out.”
5. Face the Person or Problem You’re Avoiding
Admit it—there’s a project you’re putting off, right? That’s true for all of us. Have you been procrastinating? Is the code too hard to crack? Are you terrified of failure? Or is it that you don’t know where to begin?
And maybe the problem isn’t a something, but a someone. Perhaps they’re Jedi masters at triggering your emotional hot buttons—or you theirs. Or perhaps you feel at times like you’re in an emotional MMA cage battle with them, whether your disagreements are expressed openly or fester under the surface. Well, take that as a sign of a relationship that you can improve, and lean into it. Sometimes, we avoid certain people and projects because they hold an important key to our success. In his essay “Heroism,” Ralph Waldo Emerson passed along this bit of received wisdom: “Always do what you are afraid to do.”
6. Be Systematic and Scale
As you get more comfortable with this approach to team-building, you will want to become more systematic about how you use co-elevation to achieve greater scale. As a young executive at Deloitte, I devised a quick and easy system for relationship management that I call the RAP—relationship action plan. I’ve since taught it to CEOs (as well as a few presidential candidates) and we use it at Ferrazzi Greenlight as our tool for designing and managing co-elevating teams.
In the words of management guru Peter Drucker, “What gets measured gets managed.” Once you begin co-elevating with several people on several different projects, you’ll want to start a RAP for each project or team you’re working with. Begin by making a prioritized list of your most critical relationships for the project at hand.
Ask yourself, “What’s my goal for this particular RAP?” Take notes and define the specific outcome you hope to create with each member of your co-elevating team. Whose support do you need to be successful?
“Always do what you are afraid to do.”
For each project or mission, the initial RAP list should have anywhere between five and ten names on it.
First group your list of RAPs according to a simple A-B-C priority system, because some projects are always more important than others. Then, within each RAP, track the quality of your relationship with each of the names on the list, grading each along what I call the Co-Elevation Continuum.
Most of our relationships exist in one of five relationship states along this continuum. The most common, where most business relationships reside, is what I call the coexist state. In this state, people work together to get their jobs done but remain respectfully out of one another’s way, even if they’re assigned to the same team.
We typically acquiesce into the next state, the collaborate state, when we find we can’t accomplish our jobs with the resources and responsibilities under our control. We come to this state out of necessity. We collaborate when we have to, but only for as long as we have to, before scurrying back to the default, the coexist state.
When collaboration becomes too challenging, we tend to fall into what I call the resist state, which manifests as tension and stress between us and a teammate or colleague. While in this state, we passively or consciously avoid authentic collaborative engagement—even when it would boost our chances of success.
When there is no personal trust or affinity, where attempts to collaborate lead to frustration, that’s a relationship in the resentment state. In this frame of mind, we’ve pulled back from attempts at further developing a professional or personal relationship and make little more than surface attempts at collaboration. Think of a tortoise withdrawing into his shell.
The last of the five states, the co-elevation state, is the ultimate state, the holy grail of transformative relationships. It’s the state we should strive toward in all of our relationships.
“What gets measured gets managed.”
After you’ve identified the quality of each relationship along the continuum, assign them a simple number using the following scale:
–2 Resentment state
–1 Resist state
0 Coexist state
+1 Collaboration state
+2 Co-elevation state
Let’s say you’ve assigned Bob in accounting a –2 (resentment state) because you’ve had a particularly strained relationship with him in the past. Now that you recognize he’s a team member in one of your A-priority projects, you’ll want to be proactive about addressing whatever issues you have with him so you can raise the quality of your relationship upward on the continuum, toward the co-elevation state.
7. Put the RAP to Work
The RAP gives you focus, so you know which critical relationships on priority projects need your special and urgent attention. Having multiple RAPs gives you a managerial shortcut to prioritizing the co-elevating relationships you most want to focus on and the shared objectives that need the most attention.
Tracking these numbers allows you to keep an eye on your progress with each individual, while also tracking your aggregate progress. When you add up all the scores on the RAP, the closer you get to an average score of +2, the better you’re doing.
Measuring relationships this way doesn’t make those relationships transactional. To me, it helps to single them out for how important they are. Occasionally I will share my score with a person I am co-elevating with in order to discuss what I hope we can accomplish together. I might approach Niles, for example, and tell him, “I have been keeping track of what I feel are the most critical relationships to this project, and I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t really engaged you and your peers in the group as much as I should have. That’s my bad. I would love to work together with you to remedy that.”
-Next Big Idea Club