How To Lead Without Authority
When You Are Not Their Boss
When You Are Not Their Boss

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.
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  • J. Hammond

    It’s important to remember that all businesses, large and small, have their silos and when you come “on board” as a consultant for any part of that, you upset the status quo. As a result, just like a new hire, you’re judged with a certain amount of suspicion and doubt; “Why are they bringing these guys in. I know someone who can do the job better” or, “These new consultants are invading my territory. Is my job in jeopardy? Am I getting fired?” Just like any marriage, you have to provide space and encourage the other to do their best; you have to understand the culture to the degree that you can from the “outside” and you have to constantly adjust to it; you have to not be a threat to the on-going operation while presenting the best thought through actions. I firmly believe in doing an initial assessment and including all parties through open and honest communication, especially when someone has an idea that doesn’t quite mess with your plan. You aren’t the boss, you’re a hired gun. Bring your best, but be open to the rest.

  •  Most of the small companies are still blissfully ignorant of social media influence on customer choice of products/services and i feel that they should start thinking about it right now. Thanks for the awesome post and reaally loved reading them.

  •  Most of the small companies are still blissfully ignorant of social media influence on customer choice of products/services and i feel that they should start thinking about it right now. Thanks for the awesome post and reaally loved reading them.

  • Far too many companies outsource their social media, only to try and takeover again once the foundations are established – much to the detriment of themselves. If they’re not going to listen to you, they’re unlikely to listen to their customers in the social media spectrum. In my experience, if no amount of gentle persuasion forces their hand, then there’s not much that can be done.

    • Thanks for your comment Will!  I think that’s why it’s so important to develop an effective relationship between client and the agency.  Having an understanding at the beginning AND creating the boundaries together helps prevent “drama” later down the road.

  • Excellent post. I think these strategies are especially valuable when you are helping your clients manage the internal organizational shift that often comes with adopting social marketing.

    • Anonymous

      What To Do When You Are Not the Boss
      Hi Dawn, Thanks for stopping by. What are your thoughts about outsourcing social media in general, any input on that? 

      • Great (and loaded) question. As an agency, I’m all for it. :) Seriously though, it’s a nice ideal that every organization has the time, skill, and resources to manage their own social media in-house but in my experience that’s not the reality. I think it’s an unfair expectation that is doing a disservice to business owners, and it’s also not really serving the medium. Too often business owners are told they “should” do all of their own social media so they launch a FB page or a Twitter account and realize how much time it can take to do it well, so then they abandon the entire platform (“It doesn’t work.”) I think outsourcing social media makes sense for some companies, but I do think agencies have the responsibility of educating their clients about the fundamental shift that comes with it. I think that’s the bigger challenge, and why I think this post that you wrote is so important (and well done). It encouraged me to look at how I work and what I can do better. Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      When You Are Not the Boss,
      Hi Dawn, Yes indeed, however one needs to practice much patience, as internal organizational issues are a slippery slope. What has your experience been with that, do you have any tips to offer, 


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