On a few occasions in the past week I’ve found myself talking with people about the skill it takes to lead others when you have no authority over them, particularly the tricky job of encouraging peers and other senior leaders to get on board with your ideas and support you in the work you are keen to make happen.

It’s a growing challenge with increasingly flatter structures, project groups and matrix working.  But even in hierarchical structures, senior players need to find ways to build helpful, effective and positive relationships with their peers if they have any hope of delivering the outcomes they want.  This “shared leadership”, also termed “lateral leadership”, requires some dedication and quite possibly some tenacity and patience – but doesn’t all good leadership?!

What actions are helpful?

An article by Jay A. Conger, “The Necessary Art of Persuasion” in the Harvard Business Review, highlights how important it is to pave the groundwork for persuading others around you.  This involves in the first instance establishing personal credibility and taking time to demonstrate your skill and knowledge and show how you can add value is important. Key is finding opportunities for common ground, which will enhance your opportunity to more effectively persuade those you wish to get on board. This relies on taking time to get to know the priorities of others, understanding their preferred ways of working, and sometimes choosing to sit and wait for the right moment to raise the issue at hand.   When hoping for peers to share your plans it pays to have details ready for them to provide evidence that will strengthen their understanding of your case.   Jay A Conger also suggests, and my experience backs this up, that establishing emotional connection with people is critical to effective working, and making time in a busy schedule to build genuine good.

Anything else I can do?

Lauren Keller Johnson, in her 2003 article “Exerting Influence Without Authority” in the Harvard Management Update, bears the above out by suggesting that networking is important, as it being skilled at constructive persuasion. She also lists the need for consultation with others and those amongst us involved in change will know the benefits of discussion and opinion sharing. Finally, take time to use your established connections, to lobby support from your colleagues and build a coalition to back your plans.

Does it really work in practice?

It really does, work and not just in the workplace. I spent the last five years unofficially leading a Women’s and Girls football club. It has an established Chair (of 25 years standing), but I could see room for modernisation, improvement, collaboration and increased effectiveness.  Finances were poor, player numbers dwindling and teams were operating in silos.  Fast forward five years and we have an established effective committee, regular meetings, thousands in the bank and a growing club. I had no formal leadership role but through collaboration, communications, building relationships, working hard and showing the value I could add, I was able to influence and lead much of our activity in recent years with the Chair and other Managers more often than not asking for my opinion on how to progress things.

Invest the time to lead your peers

Any form of relationship building will require skill, an understanding of effective communication and taking time to get to know the preferences and wants of those around you. Building trust amongst your peers, especially for those Directors needing to work closely together to lead an organisation is crucial. Of course, there will always be things that unfold in the working week which might bring frustration and tension.  The skill comes in managing your irritation and not allowing that to sabotage the hard work you’ve put in to establish your critical connections.  Those struggling on this front might want to take a look at Prof Steve Peters “Chimp Paradox”.

Getting to the stage where you have established the right relationships with your colleagues takes time…. But it is worth the investment of this time to more quickly get things done when you want to make things happen. Some of you will be thinking I don’t have time for all these shenanigans, I just come to work. Investing in relationships means you are investing in results – so it is work and a focus on collaboration is more than useful. At it’s very simplest I guess I am saying “Play Nice” … it will reap dividends!