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Technology & Innovation

Getting Ahead by Leading Across

Witnessing the downward-spiral of Carla Sanders’ career was painful — yet her experience offers an important commentary on the requirements of executive leadership in today’s organizations. (Carla’s an actual executive whose name has been changed.)

Carla was literally bred for success as a business manager. The daughter of a senior corporate executive, she had all the right tickets including an MBA from a top school and several years of experience with a prestigious management consulting firm. Smart as a whip, she possessed impressive analytical skills and a tremendous drive to produce results. However, it was an understatement to say that Carla did not “suffer fools gladly.” Her peers complained bitterly about her “my way or the highway” approach and often felt blindsided when they heard her present a proposed plan of action to senior management without having solicited their input. When they voiced concerns about the business and organizational impact of her recommendations, she dismissed them as “old school” and resistant to change.

Carla’s manager raised her peers’ concerns with Carla, she but responded that she had no time for corporate politics and “handholding” those who couldn’t keep up with her drive and intensity. Shortly thereafter, the pace of her career progress began to stall. Her excellent results notwithstanding, the ongoing “flak” from peers and colleagues became an unacceptable distraction within the company.

In an attempt to correct the course the company offered Carla several turnaround assignments at the same level. But, anxious for a promotion to the executive level, she took a position with a key competitor. Unfortunately, she left her new company a year or two later after running afoul of the same set of issues with colleagues.

It’s true that different organizations accept (and in some cases encourage) varying levels of competition and conflict within their management ranks. However, executives like Carla Sanders miss a crucial point: over the last fifteen to twenty years, the organizational structures of many companies have changed in fundamental ways, a shift that makes lateral management — the ability to work with peers and co-workers to get things done across boundaries — an imperative requirement for success at the executive level.

Think for a minute. To what extent does your company employ a matrix structure or rely on a shared services organization? Are joint ventures or strategic alliances critical to the company’s success? As a major research study I conducted recently with The Conference Board pointed out, such organizational structures demand leaders who combine business expertise and a drive for results with the ability to work with and through people over whom they typically have no direct control.

This leadership imperative goes far beyond being collaborative and “playing nicely” with peers. Leading innovation within today’s organizations demands enlisting and mobilizing others since significant change will in all likelihood impact multiple organizational units. And for the executive, that requires real insight into how the organization works and how decisions get made. It also has important implications for how aspiring executives need to manage their careers in order to succeed at senior levels.

When executives like Carla Sanders get feedback that they are viewed by peers as parochial and non-collaborative, their first response is often to set up a series of lunches or dinners to try to re-build their personal relationships. That’s not necessary a bad thing to do, but their approach is superficial, and they confuse personal connections with strong working relationships based on trust. Such relationships form the basis of an executive’s ability to influence and persuade others and deal constructively with conflict and the differences of opinion that inevitably arise in fast-paced organizations.

In his classic HBR article, “Harnessing the Power of Persuasion” Robert Cialdini outlines a number of variables involved in an individual’s ability to influence others. It starts with establishing some points of personal affinity but quickly extends to developing a thorough understanding of the other party’s goals and objectives — both personal and career-wise — and generating support on the part of those whose opinions the executive relies on and trusts. This understanding is extremely helpful in stripping back the veneer of how decisions get made within the company — which is often less about who ultimately makes a decision and more about the highly-credible people who influence the decision makers — so the manager can be successful in advancing his or her proposed initiatives.

Many times, otherwise well-intentioned people fall into the trap of not anticipating the impact of their proposed initiatives on other parts of the organization. A finance manager’s proposal to reduce staffing in a customer call center, for example, may reduce expenses but handicap the organization’s ability to respond to customer needs — and present a hurdle to completing a major new customer sale. To counteract such organizational naiveté, managers who aspire to advance to the executive level should seek to expand the arc of their career development and pursue assignments that increase their breadth of perspective on the industry and how the organization operates.

Although organizations do vary substantially in terms of the level of conflict they are prepared to accept, at some point an executive needs to become adept at managing strong differences of opinion. Many managers shy away from conflict until it escalates while others resolve the conflict at the expense of bruised feelings and “blood on the floor.” Other managers capitulate in the face of opposition and are too quick to accept a sub-optimal decision in the name of compromise. Astute executives are advised to take a page from Fisher, Ury, and Patton’s book, Getting to Yes and probe to achieve a fundamental understanding of the other party’s overriding objectives as a starting point for generating new, creative win/win solutions.

None of the steps I’ve described is either easy or foolproof. However, they underscore a reality of life in today’s complex, matrix-style organizations: far from taking time away from doing their jobs, working with peers, influencing them, and driving change across organization boundaries is a central responsibility of executives today.

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