When You Are Not Their Boss

by Eric Brown |

I am starting to rethink about our whole social media strategy approach for small businesses. Not so much with our own companies, but for our clients. It has taken me an inordinate amount of time to discover the constraints of “not being their boss,” something consultants and agencies a like are challenged with constantly.

I have spent most of my marketing life on the other side, as the buyer of marketing and branding services. In an odd chain of events over the last several years, that has shifted to the consultant and marketing studio side. I have wrongly made the assumption that when we sold the marketing ideas and strategy to the boss’s boss, the gal or guy at the top of the pyramid and the person paying the bill, all was well. Not really, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Then I thought, well, we are a different kind of studio, we also actually own our own businesses that we have tested all of this newfangled social media, new media, social marketing  stuff on, and here are the results. That should put us more on the same side, right? And yes, results — that’s what they want, right? And they can get the same results if they just “do what I say,” or just followed  our packages of little rules.

We all know it isn’t really all that easy, is it? The more of this social marketing that we do, both internally for our companies and externally for clients, there are lots of moving parts to tie together to get it all to work right. And, when you aren’t the boss, rearranging the deck chairs has a whole other set of challenges.

In the book Lateral Leadership: Getting Things Done When You’re Not the Boss (2nd ed., Profile Books, 2004), Harvard negotiation specialist Roger Fisher and coauthor Alan Sharp lay out a useful, five-step method for leading when you are not formally in charge. Its steps can be applied to virtually any project you’re involved in or team or meeting you participate in. Christina Bielaszka-DuVernay explained their five steps for Harvard Business Review this way:

1. Establish goals

People accomplish the most when they have a clear set of objectives. It follows that any group’s first order of business is to write down exactly what it hopes to achieve. The person who asks the question “Can we start by clarifying our goals here?” and who then assumes the lead in discussing and drafting those goals, is automatically taking a leadership role, whatever his or her position.

2. Think systematically

Observe your next meeting: People typically plunge right into the topic at hand and start arguing over what to do. Effective leaders, by contrast, learn to think systematically. That is, they gather and lay out the necessary data, analyze the causes of the situation, and propose actions based on this analysis. In a group, leaders help keep participants focused by asking appropriate questions. Do we have the information we need to analyze this situation? Can we focus on figuring out the causes of the problem we’re trying to solve?

3. Learn from experience — while it’s happening

Teams often plow ahead on a project, then conduct a review at the end to
figure out what they learned. But it’s more effective for teams (or individuals) to learn as they go along.

Anyone who prompts the group to engage in regular minireviews and learn from them is playing a de facto leadership role. Why is this ongoing process more effective than an after-action review? The events are fresh in everyone’s mind. And the team can use what they learn from each minireview to make needed adjustments to their work processes or their goals.

4. Engage others

A high-performing team engages the efforts of every member, and effective team leaders seek out the best fit possible between members’ interests and the tasks that need doing. Suggest writing down a list of chores and matching them up with individuals or subgroups. If no one wants a particular task, brainstorm ways to make that task more interesting or challenging. Help draw out the group’s quieter members so that everyone feels a part of the overall project.

5. Provide feedback

If you’re not the boss, what kind of feedback can you provide? One thing that’s always valued is simple appreciation–“I thought you did a great job in there.” Sometimes, too, you’ll be in a position to help people improve their performance through coaching. Effective coaches ask a lot of questions: “How did you feel you did on this part of the project?” They recognize that people may try hard and fail anyway: “What made it hard to accomplish your part of the task?” They offer thoughtful suggestions for improvement, being careful to explain the observation and reasoning that lie behind them.

At the end of the day, what does all of this mean? Probably project management and a dose or two of patience and some more project management. Sure, it also indicates that perhaps dictatorial management has some merit? But until you’re the dictator, you need ideas on how to lead. Hopefully, these will help you as much as they’ve helped us.

Your thoughts? How do you lead when you’re not in charge? What are your challenges there? The comments are yours.

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About the Author

Eric Brown

Eric Brown's background is rooted in the rental and real estate industries. He founded metro Detroit’s Urbane Apartments in 2003, after serving as senior vice president for a major Midwest apartment developer. He established a proven track record of effectively repositioning existing rental properties in a way that added value for investors while enhancing the resident experience. He also established The Urbane Way, a social media marketing and PR laboratory, where innovative marketing ideas are tested.