Leading Without Authority

Consider the last time you were in a situation where you had to influence or lead someone who held a higher rank, a loftier title or had more experience than you did. Chances are you shuddered at the thought, subconsciously devalued what you had to offer and, as a result, did little to persuade your team or audience to follow you.

But it didn’t have to be that way. We all face situations where we’re asked to speak to, or lead, others who are higher on the food chain or have more formal authority than we possess. Perhaps you’re a project manager asked to lead a temporary project team of high-ranking technical experts – and work with an internal sponsor “in charge” of the initiative. Maybe you’re a human resource manager trying to sell a stingy chief financial officer on a new employee training program. Or it could be you’re simply someone who regularly offers up ideas for improvement – only to see them go nowhere. The good news is there are proven ways to be more influential in situations when you don’t have the “position power” to make people naturally pay attention or fall in line with your ideas. 

Selling You, Not Your Title
When you don’t have this kind of inherent authority, it becomes far more important to leverage who you are, says Kevin Cashman, founder and CEO of Leadersource, a Korn/Ferry company that specializes in leadership training. In other words, your ability to come across as authentic, knowledgeable and credible grows even more vital if you don’t carry an impressive title or have vast experience. “The people who are studying you, those you are trying to influence, look more at who you are and where you’re coming from if you don’t have that built-in ‘club’ of positional power,” says Cashman.

If persuasion is your end game, there is no substitute for mastering your subject matter or seeing a situation from your audience’s eyes. But building up a storehouse of relational equity – feelings of goodwill with others – can also be a great aid to your cause, Cashman says. Such equity comes from establishing strong company relationships and networks that make it easier to create alliances when the time comes to push new ideas or lead others.

If people believe your intent is to serve – be it other people, your own department or the organization as a whole – rather than advance your own career or agenda, they are more likely to trust you, believe in you and follow you, even if you don’t have formal authority or a management title. An attitude of servant leadership gives you influence, says Cashman.

                    “Maybe you can’t change the whole world, but you can change your corner of it.
                    And when you change your corner, you actually change the world.” 
– Carl Duivenvoorden, DTM

Geoff Bellman, a Seattle-based management consultant and author of the book Getting Things Done When You’re Not in Charge, says good influence skills are also a function of being in tune with the world around you. “People need to believe that you’re not just caught up in your own narrow cause and that you have their needs, or the organization’s best interests, at heart,” Bellman says.

He believes one of the best strategies for marshalling support when you lack position power is to gather independent research or use expert testimonials to bolster your ideas – and, if possible, to first get top management buy-in for such research. Relying only on your own opinion to persuade others makes you more vulnerable to skepticism when you have no formal authority.

“If top executives have a particular problem they’d like to solve, get their support for going out into the organization to speak to 10 people about how the problem is affecting them and what they might do to solve it,” says Bellman. “Having given their support to that fact-finding exercise, executives will be more interested in the results.” 

How Do They Like to be Sold?
Allan Cohen, a professor at Babson College and co-author of the book Influence Without Authority, says it’s more important than ever to speak your audience’s language when trying to influence without position power. For example, he cites the experience of a training specialist who sought to purchase software that would allow his company’s customer service representatives to learn new skills via desktop computers. When those controlling the purse strings resisted the idea, the specialist didn’t give up. Instead he decided to temporarily hold off on filling an open job on his staff, using the money saved to hire a retired chief financial officer to counsel him on how to better sell the software investment to his bosses.

He learned that the way finance looked at training was on a cost-per-student basis, which varied from the specialist’s approach. “With the help of that CFO’s perspective, the trainer was able to modify his strategy and sell the company on the software purchase when virtually no funds were being freed up for new investment anywhere else in the organization,” says Cohen.

                    “Leadership isn’t about a position, it’s about behavior. Doing something willingly
                    because you respect and trust someone is different from doing something because
                    they have the authority to give you an order.” 
– Jim Kouzes, Ph.D., Toastmasters Golden Gavel recipient 2006

Carl Duivenvoorden, DTM, a longtime Toastmaster and a speaker and writer who specializes in environmental issues, believes leading by example is among the best ways to influence others when you don’t have a weighty title. He points to the late Terry Fox, the one-legged runner who ran across Canada to raise money for cancer research, as a shining example of this principle. Fox never let his disability get the better of him and constantly led by doing until he succumbed to cancer. “If you expect something of someone else, you need to be willing to do that thing yourself,” Duivenvoorden says.

Managing volunteers is a situation where people are commonly faced with leading those over whom they have little direct authority. Bellman says such scenarios can be “both a blessing and a curse.” The blessing comes in working with people who have great passion, are often selfless and bring considerable expertise from other areas of their lives to volunteer duties. The curse comes in trying to direct and manage people who are often independent and strong-willed and who know you don’t control a paycheck or conduct their performance appraisals. Volunteers have choices as to where they can spend their increasingly scarce time, and Bellman says if they feel that time – and their opinions – aren’t adequately respected, they will look elsewhere to serve.

“You need to praise their presence over and over again in various ways,” Bellman says. “Speak regularly to the difference they are making in the world, even if it’s a seemingly small one, such as volunteering with you.”

As a past District Governor in Toastmasters, Duivenvoorden knows well the challenge of leading volunteers. “It’s a role where you have no real title authority, where you’re not signing people’s checks, but you still have to persuade people to work with you toward a common goal,” he says.

Duivenvoorden proved successful in that task by using many of the strategies espoused in this article, leading his team to finish in the top third of all districts worldwide in 2004-2005. One of his main messages to his team was this maxim: Maybe you can’t change the whole world, but you can change your corner of it. And when you change your corner, you actually change the world. 

Presenting to the Powers That Be
If you haven’t yet found yourself standing at a lectern or in an office conference room and looking out at nothing but people with larger titles or more experience than you, it’s probably only a matter of time before it happens. How do you project authority and get such a tough audience on your side?

Bellman has been dealing with higher-echelon leaders for almost 40 years, first as a staff manager and later as an external consultant, and one thing he has learned is this: “Most people at this level really like to be dealt with on an equal basis.” They are usually eager to learn from you, he says, and don’t want you to hide your expertise under a barrel or pull any punches. Even if your title is front-line supervisor, C-level executives often want to pick your brain and interact with you as a peer.

“What people look for instinctively is a sense you know what you’re talking about and you are convinced you are right,” says Nick Morgan of the presentation-skill coaching firm Public Words in Boston, Massachusetts. “Knowledge, research and passion can go a long way even if your title is frontline supervisor, not CEO.”

One key to success in these situations is emphasizing what your audience might not possess – your daily experience in the trenches. For example, a customer service manager trying to convince an executive team of the need for additional resources might focus on firsthand experiences with frustrated customers or illustrate how outdated technology is crimping productivity.

                    “You want to use real-world examples that stick in people’s minds,
                    or data they haven’t seenbefore, to tap into your own authority.”
                            – Nick Morgan of coaching firm Public Words

“That’s what most top managers no longer have and usually will respect – that daily rubber-meets-the-road experience,” says Morgan. “You want to use real-world examples that stick in people’s minds, or data they haven’t seen before, to tap into your own authority.”

David Greenberg, a speech coach with Simply Speaking Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, says finding and addressing an audience’s “pain” is the key to persuasion, regardless of one’s titles and credentials. “If you want people to buy anything you are selling, you need to show you understand what keeps them up at night and that you have a real solution to their pain.” And you do this, Greenberg says, through use of “testimonials, data and your own hard-won knowledge or experience.”

Although highlighting your in-the-trenches experience and know-how is a good idea, you want to avoid doing it in a way that makes audiences feel out of touch or defensive. In other words, don’t come on too strong in trying to prove yourself. “If you have some insecurity about not having a big title, it can be easy to push a little too hard on your field experience to influence others,” says Cashman.

In fact, experts say it’s smart to take the first step of acknowledging the expertise and experience of your audience; an early bow to their credentials makes them more open to your message.

“By honoring their experience in a genuine way, and being honest about the experience or knowledge you don’t have as well as what you do have, it levels the playing field,” Cashman says.

Such an approach can, for example, grease the skids for selling them on new technology you think can help the company boost productivity or customer service, or convince higher-ups of the value of certain process changes or budget expansions.

As difficult as it can be to remember in these nerve-racking situations, it isn’t about you or the people you’re speaking to. It’s about why you are attempting to influence or educate your audience in the first place. “Stay focused on that instead of getting caught up in how powerful someone else might be and how ‘inconsequential’ you might be,” Bellman says. “Keep that larger purpose in mind and you’ll usually do well.”

So take heart, ye of lesser titles or credentials. It is possible to influence and lead as power brokers do by remembering that authority and effective leadership are two different things.

“Leadership isn’t about a position, it’s about behavior,” says Jim Kouzes, author of The Leadership Challenge and a business professor at Santa Clara University who received Toastmasters’ Golden Gavel Award in 2006. “Doing something willingly because you respect and trust someone is different from doing something because they have the authority to give you an order.”

That, in a nutshell, captures the difference between commitment and compliance. And if your goal is to influence or lead a highly engaged and motivated group of associates that delivers better customer service, improved product quality or greater productivity, the former almost always wins the day. 

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer who divides his time between Wisconsin and South Carolina. 

Delivering Bad News 

By Dave Zielinski

It’s not unusual for employees near the front lines to have to deliver bad news up the organizational chain of command. Doing this well is an art form, experts say. Step one is to understand the long-term damage that can result from covering up, rather than unearthing, problems. As the saying goes, If you can admit a mistake when it’s the size of an acorn, it’s easier to repair than when it becomes the size of a tree, with its deep, sprawling roots.

“Senior leaders, if they are healthy, want to hear what is really going on in the company, and they relish people who tell the truth, because they know that type of courage is rare in the organization,” says Kevin Cashman, founder and CEO of Leadersource, which specializes in leadership training. “The worst thing you can do is try to spruce up bad news by making it look good. It may seem like the safe route in the short term, but in the long run it hurts everyone involved.”

The key when reporting bad news is to make sure you propose a solution, if feasible, to the problem encountered. The last thing most executives want is someone who repeatedly points out problems or critiques management decisions yet offers little in the way of well-thought-through remedies.