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Leadership tips to use when you're not the boss

Aug 29, 2018

By Elaine Russell FCA

Today's business world is moving faster every day. Hierarchies are getting flatter, and more and more work is project-based. Whether you're a manager, working in a team or a single contributor, it's likely that you have had to influence, or even improve, the performance of people who don't formally report to you.

Often managers find this challenging because they think a "boss" can simply tell people what to do. The good news is that what great leaders do when they are the boss works just as well when they don't have formal authority. Getting things done by merely telling people what to do doesn't work well, in the long-run anyway.

Here are my top leadership tips to use when you're not the boss...

1. Meet each team member individually

Nobody in the corporate world today isn't busy. Most of us struggle to get our day-to-day work done, never mind the things others might ask us to do.

Following Stephen Covey’s advice, "seek first to understand, then to be understood", it's a good idea to approach each team member individually first - ideally in person, but a phone or video call can work too.

Use this time to get insights about their situation: What is their focus right now? What do they think about the project you're being asked it lead? And how much time can they realistically make available?

Then probe a bit deeper to understand their motivation to be involved in the initiative. It could be that they want to show a new skill they have learnt or they want to be part of a winning team. Or, it could be that they don’t see any benefit in being involved and that's where you need to use some inspiring and influencing skills to bring them on board.

These initial meetings can be insightful and challenging, but it's well worth investing this time up front as it also helps with tip number two.

2. Take time to build relationships across your team

Creating the environment to build personal relationships across your team can improve teamwork like magic. Talking about personal things like family or finding common interests or hobbies helps build trust, which is key to building strong relationships and a great team.

This becomes more critical when you're not the boss so following the one-to-one meetings, arrange a face-to-face kick-off meeting that creates the right environment for the team to chat and get to know each other.

In our results-oriented world, we tend to forget that results are always accomplished by and through people.

3. Set a big, audacious goal

Every team needs a compelling vision, an exciting goal that they work for, something that keeps them going even when the going gets tough.

Discuss this vision with the team members together. Identify the common ground and how you, as a team, can be successful. In all projects, there will be ups and downs. As a leader, you can use the vision to remind the team of the end goal and what you are all working towards.

4. Create and communicate quick wins

Working hard without seeing results can be frustrating and demotivating. A key role of the team leader is to identify how you can create successes early on to keep the team motivated.

Success breeds success. Early quick wins are great motivators and will encourage people to keep going.

5. Be positive

We often think that delivering quality work is enough to get the work noticed. That's not true. Whether you like it or not, perception often matters more than reality.

As the leader, always be ready with a strong elevator pitch on what's going well on the project. Describe the team's recent successes. Absolutely talk about any challenges you have, but make sure that you identify the solutions you have planned. Keep your story positive.

6. ALWAYS sell every success as team success

As the leader of the team, you may be the one and only person communicating project progress to stakeholders. Make sure you sell every success as a team success.

Remember that a leader without followers is just someone taking a walk.

By now you have seen that, if done right, leading without formal authority may be easier than you might have thought. In fact, project work outside the normal reporting lines can often be more fun and enjoyable than your actual job.

Elaine Russell is Managing Director of Omega Consulting, which helps organisations maximise business performance through clarity of direction (strategy) and empowering individuals and teams to play to their strengths (leadership).